Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A truly unforgettable experience.

Just after checking in, a late lunch was quickly put together for us - even though it was then close to tea-time. 

Soon after we were taken in a 4x4 to the closest drop-off point, from where we trekked into the forest, with our knowledgeable guide Bandulla. 

The resort we saw after the brisk trek was straight out of my dream ! The last approach to the resort was after you cross a hanging rope bridge. 

With no electricity and almost nothing mechanical, it was back to the basics (literally) ! I enjoyed the experience to the core. 

The rooms were all spacious and comfortably rustic. And there was a forest stream gurgling just behind where we stayed. It was beyond serene and beautiful. 

We never had any insect problems, though I'm not scared of the insects. I am also not scared of the dark, so it was not an issue. Only kerosene lanterns were provided after sunset for lighting. 

Food was typically local. Though not luxurious, it was not bad either. 

The best part was the staff were very hospitable and many times, they went out of their way to make sure we were satisfied. honestly, I can't think of anything that I didn't quite like about that place.

And, I sure would go back again. Hope it stays unchanged.

Great place for a nice evening.

We had an office party here following an account win !

The only regret is that the place isn't licensed. So you drink elsewhere and just come here for the 'sheesha' and the food.

The ambience is nice, with some open space too if you feel like sitting out. But then it will be possible only during the cooler months of September till March.

Since ours was a group of about 20, the service was good as the final bill ought to be fat !

Great Indian Food ...

Want some authentic and terrific Indian food, Mumtaz Mahal is the place to go to. 
We tried the unlimited ‘kabab platter’ with a variety of meat – red, white, pink – and vegetables too done to perfection ! It was yummy !

The delectable spread of kababs was polished off with some yummy biryani prepared in pure Indian style. Great stuff !

Nice for a quiet walk ...

I keep going back to the Muttrah Corniche ever so often as it is a great sea facing stretch to go for long walks. The Sultan's ship moored there (usually), a few traditional Omani dhows, some cruise liners at times, the Mina Qaboos port and above all the majestic brown mountains which form the backdrop to the Corniche all add a distinctive charm of the Corniche.

Also you can see numerous expatriates fishing by the edge of the sea during high tide. Though have seen them fishing with their homemade fishing rods and other primitive contraptions, with usually nothing more than stale bread as bait, I've never really seen any of these anglers reel in a big fish ! LOL !

So near, yet so far ...

Thekkady is a typical Kerala countryside, with rich vegetation, constant rains and damp weather (at least that's how it was when we went a year or so back).

Thekkady’s single biggest attraction is its huge Periyar lake. With 2-tier motorised boats one can go boating which takes about 2 hours per trip. On a lucky day, I’m told that many wild animals can be spotted along the lake’s shores. All that we spotted were a group of bisons (very far away), a couple of wild pigs and a herd of sambhar. We didn't even see an elephant, for which Thekkady is so well known and famous for !! We were informed that during the rainy season, animals do not venture out since there will be enough water for them to drink inside the jungle itself. We were right there ... and yet couldn't see any 'real' wild life :-( !!! 

And, that's exactly why I titled my review 'So near, yet so far ...' !

The Forest Guides and those who manage the forest reserve were not very helpful. When I asked to go for a jungle trek, I was told that when it rains they do not encourage it because of the jungle leeches, millipedes and centipedes that would be swarming the jungle floor. 

In Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary apart from the Jungle Treks, there isn't much else to do. The Tiger Trails etc., are all seasonal and are heavily weather dependent. During monsoon time, the place has almost nothing to offer visitors except the 2-hour boat ride. Spice Tour though available, isn't very exciting. You are taken around to see the various plantations like Tea, Pepper, cardamom, Vanilla, and numerous medicinal herbs and plants.

Thekkady is quite easily accessible from any of the major cities of Tamil Nadu / Kerala, India. The place is well-connected by road and train services. The net also provides visitors all the information that they will require. 

From Thekkady bus stop, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is just 15 minutes and Rs.100 away by auto rickshaw. Once within the sanctuary it is very tranquil and quiet with only the sounds of the jungle - mostly the insects, some birds, monkeys, and the occasional wild animal. The place is very basic, modest and down-market in its offerings as the tourists who seem to visit it !

Old is gold !

Holiday Home in Kodaikanal is indeed a great place to stay, when you're holidaying in Kodai. The place is possibly one of the oldest in the hill station. Run by a well-known family for over half-a-century ! That by itself says loads about the property.

Going by a conservative estimate, the last renovation of that property must have happened close to a quarter of a century back ! It's nowhere near 'pristine' condition – at least when we visited it a good 5 years back.

Early mornings, if step outside your cottage don't be shocked to see a herd of Bisons rummaging for leftover food ! They come and go from the bordering sholas (forests) and hills.

There's plenty of pear trees around the property from where you can pluck and eat all the pears you want ! There's a lovely little stream that runs right through the place too ! These are what makes it 'different' to the regular up-market resorts and hotels. Daily morning pick-up and drop to Kodaikanal town and back is a good service provided by the hotel, given the fact it’s a few good kilometers away from the town.

Food was a big cause for concern. There’s a large, very old dining hall (accommodating up to a 500, at a time). Food is served at set times there. If you want non-vege food, you'll have to first plan ahead, pay for your chicken or whatever you wish to consume for lunch (or pay up front during lunch time, for your dinner serving). That’s how it works. If you suddenly feel like biting into a luscious chicken drumstick, all you'll get is a polite 'No', with a big smile !!

'Cash only' was also an irritant. When we stayed here, the water had a strong smell of 'iron'. Perhaps because the geyser in the bathroom was a very old one.

I don’t know if the property has undergone any renovation in recent times, in which case it would make it a must stay destination, when in Kodai !
Get a room as far away from the dining room area. It will be less crowded !

Sea Gull Chunnambar Beach Resort.

Booked myself at the Sea Gull Chunnambar Beach Resort for I had no other options available. On account of the long weekend almost all good places were sold out. 

Called up Pondicherry Tourism development Office and managed to get a double-bedroom. Asked for the Treehouse, but was told that it's not available. During my 2-day stay I noticed that it was not occupied by anyone else either ! The place is run-down and not maintained well, or at least as a resort should be !

The only activity that was buzzing in Sea Gull Chunnambar Beach Resort is their Bar ! Pondicherry is but one very big bar ! Booze, booze and more booze everywhere ! This resort is no exception. 

When I asked for tea at 5 p.m. one evening the waiter informed me that that don't have tea, but can serve me chilled Beer !! In fact, we had to drive around for hours before we could find a place that would serve us some tea ! All hotels, big and small offered us Beer and most said that they do not serve tea or coffee !!

Restaurant in the resort closes at 9 p.m. while the bar is open until midnight ! They said drink all you can, then drive out in the dark looking for a decent place to eat ! We did just that and landed at Hotel Mass International, which they said is a "star hotel". That place is equally bad. There was a 'Biryani festival' going on that evening and the deal was 'Buy 1 Biryani and get 1 Beer Free' !!!

This place is not advisable for families with small kids. For bachelors on drinking binges it would be just ideal :-) !!! I went here in 2006.

Perfect Place. Poor Participation.

Thekkady is a typical Kerala countryside, with rich vegetation, constant rains and damp weather (at least that's how it was when we went ).Go when the rain gods take a break, please !

Thekkady’s single biggest attraction is its huge lake. With 2-tier motorised boats one can go boating which takes about 2 hours per trip. On a lucky day, I’m told that many wild animals can be spotted along the lake’s shores. All that we spotted were a group of bisons (very far away), a couple of wild pigs and a herd of sambhar. We didn't even see an elephant, for which Thekkady is so well known and famous for !! We were informed that during the rainy season, animals do not venture out since there will be enough water for them to drink inside the jungle itself.

The Forest Guides and those who manage the forest reserve were not very helpful. When I asked to go for a jungle trek, I was told that when it rains they do not encourage it because of the jungle leeches, millipedes and centipedes that would be swarming the jungle floor. This is exactly what I meant when I said "Poor Participation". With a place like that if only the authorities would take little efforts in providing what a good number of tourists like me come for - that is to spend more time exploring the jungles, then this place would be such a superb destination. But alas !

Quite frankly, in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary apart from the Jungle Treks, there isn't much else to do. The Tiger Trails etc., are all seasonal and are heavily weather dependent. During monsoon time, the place has almost nothing to offer visitors except the 2-hour boat ride. Spice Tour though available, isn’t very exciting. You are taken around to see the various plantations like Tea, Pepper, cardamom, Vanilla, and numerous medicinal herbs and plants.

Thekkady is quite easily accessible from any of the major cities of Tamil Nadu / Kerala, India. The place is well-connected by road and train services. The net also provides visitors all the information that they will require. From Thekkady bus stop, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is just 15 minutes and Rs.100 away by auto rickshaw. Once within the sanctuary it is very tranquil and quiet with only the sounds of the jungle - mostly the insects, some birds, monkeys, and the occasional wild animal. 

The place is very basic, modest and down-market in its offerings as the tourists who seem to visit it ! Opt for the ground floor rooms. Monkey menace would be lesser. On the first-floor monkeys wreck havoc. You need to constantly keep a lookout for their disturbing presence

Calm, Quiet, Peaceful.

The property in itself is fabulous. Very stylish and very, very plush. The location is breathtaking, with mist covered mountains behind and a awe-inspiring valley / lake view in front. 

The setting is just brilliant, even though to reach the resort is a bit of a pain !!

I was rather unhappy about a few incidents at the resort and so I mentioned those in so many words in the online Guest Feedback System. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that not only were my concerns looked into, without any delay whatsoever, but all my problems were swiftly and satisfactorily addressed !! Great customer focus. All credit should go to the (then) Front Office Manager Ramesh Jadoun and to the Chef, Debraj Bhaumik.

What irked us a lot was I had to find my way from Munnar town, all by ourselves, as the resort refused to provide me with a pick-up facility - even after my requesting them ! (The resort is a good 20 kms outside of Munnar town and the roads aren't always good). Club Mahindra must do something serious about this if they want their guests to come back again !

For someone looking for a calm, quiet and a peaceful break from life's hustle and bustle, then this would be an ideal place.

P.S. The resort is quite large and is rather spread out. A room in the main block / building would be the most convenient and ideal, if walking is a problem. For those who are fit as a fiddle the rooms spread around the property would be good as they can enjoy a workout as they climb the steep steps to and from their rooms to go to the main building which houses the restaurant / entertainment lounge / et al.

Scintillating Location. Period.

Quite frankly I chanced upon 'Howard Johnson, The Monarch Safari Park in Masinagudi recently. I stayed there for 3 good days. The property is, to be honest, nothing to write home about. 

While the place is excellent, there is a serious dearth of any organised outdoor activity. The resort should take the initiative and should plan a few flexible itineraries for the benefit of the guests.

The jungle trek / jeep ride (into Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, which is about 10 kms away) doesn't take one more than a maximum of 3 hours. And that’s in the mornings. So after that ride is done, what else ? Nothing. In a lovely place like that, Monarch Safari Park can do a lot ... really a lot ! But they have chosen to do absolutely nothing to keep their guests occupied. 

Also the Resort can do much more to improve their service standards. The service is very basic. Food is also basic. But the room that I stayed in was very spacious and clean. However the tap in the bathroom was dripping right through my stay (which was extremely annoying). 

Monarch Safari Park is set in wonderful surroundings. That's about it !! They still have a very long way to go, to become a resort of choice among seasoned travelers like me.

The good point about this property is its proximity to Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, which was by far the greatest highlight of our trip ! Also the forests around the resort, the mountains, the salubrious climate are all excellent incentives for me to go there again some day ! I hope and trust that in the meantime, the resort management does something worthwhile to increase the appeal of the place by taking some much needed steps.

P.S. Forgot to mention, the Food here is basic and hence a let-down. Service too was bordering on inefficiency. While the environs by itself is really very good, the allied services are the opposite.

This resort somehow give you the feeling that they do not want guests and any guest is seen as an unwanted intruder. Rooms are ill kept and uncared for, like the rest of the resort. Stay here at your own risk

Traveller's Home - A Very Bad Experience :-( !!!

I visited Yala National Park in August 2012. And I stayed at the ‘Traveller’s Home’ owned by Ebert - the one with a serious skin condition :-(.

I was referred to his place by a tout in Nuwara Eliya, who claimed to be Ebert’s brother. Ebert ripped me off.

The room he gave me inside his house (adjoining the kitchen) was mediocre and he charged me SLR. 4,000/- for less than 12-hours. While I spoke with him from Nuwara Eliya he had agreed to let me have the room for SLR. 1500/- for a day.

I couldn’t even use the shower as the water pressure was too low and the water was falling drop-by-drop. Also, I almost lost a finger while removing my tee – the ceiling fan was too low – luckily the fan was spinning at a slow speed.

The service at this home stay was shockingly poor – I was seated at his porch by 04:30 a.m. for the 05:00 a.m. jungle safari and no one bothered to serve me my tea, or provide me with the takeaway sandwiches, for which I had already paid an additional amount !

Ebert insisted that I pack-up even before I went for my safari as he had other guests lined up.
At Traveller’s Home money-making is sole motto. Service standards are way too low. But the prices charged are over the top.

For an 8-hour jungle safari, Ebert charged me SLR. 7,500/- !

The only saving grace of my trip was that I saw a Sri Lankan leopard during the closing hours of the safari.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend anybody to go anywhere near Ebert or his ‘Traveller’s Home’.

If only the service had been as good as the place ...

During our 3-week vacation to India, we managed to steal a short holiday to a great resort called ‘Mystique Ville’ positioned in their website as ‘a pristine jungle experience’ !

Located amidst mountains and tea estates of Ooty in the south of India, this place is located more precisely near ‘Kalhatti Waterfalls’ on the ‘Seegur Ghat Road’ amidst the lush greenery of the tea plantations, waterfalls and dense foliage set at about 1,600 meters above sea level making it a very quiet and peaceful retreat.

Specifically, Mystique Ville is right off the 15th Hairpin Bend (about 25 kms downhill) from Ooty town, enroute to Masinagudi / Theppakadu / Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary.

The property is a well-maintained and very charming Portuguese style resort with Victorian style interiors. Each of the 11 Victorian styled rooms has restored antique furniture, complete with a hearth. The room in the middle of the property is the best, commanding the best views.

The 2 nights and 3 days that we spent there, we had the entire property all for ourselves, since there were absolutely no other guests !!

Jessica, the front office help was really helpful. Didn’t see any Manager about whom I’ve heard horror stories. The rest of the support staff was not too enthusiastic to put it mildly. Perhaps there were no guests around except just my family.

May be because there were no other guests the service standards were overall lax and lethargic.

Just to quote one example, when I got up early one morning (by about 6) to my utter shock I realised that no hot water was flowing from the bathroom taps. Mind you, mornings around here can get pretty chilly and the cold water was near freezing.

So I desperately went around looking for some help who can turn on the hot water supply, but couldn’t find a soul for a good 1 hour. After great difficulty I managed to catch hold of some local help and they in turn went looking for the plumber, who was finally found and after a good couple of hours running around the resort the hot water supply was finally turned on. It was very frustrating besides being very irritating. You certainly don’t want to go through this when you’re on your vacation.

One more downside of being the only occupants of the resort was that the restaurant service was shockingly poor and casually negligent.

The resort had to cook only for us and naturally it was on our pre order. No issues there. But what was served was of extremely poor quality with little or no taste, besides having to wait endlessly for our food – breakfast, lunch and dinner – even though we tell the restaurant in-charge what we’ll have a good 3-4 hours beforehand.

Overall loved the property. Particularly the pristine and lush environs complete with a flowing waterfalls (whose ever present lilting sound can soothe and calm the most knotted of nerves). Full marks there.

But the service standards across the board leave a lot to be desired.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Reviving a pleasant reverie ... Ella Adventure Park, Off Bandarawella, Sri Lanka !

This is a review I did of Ella for 'TripAdvisor', soon after my memorable week-long stay there.

Across the Ella-Wellaweya road, the park stretches over another 38 acres.

Here there are also eco lodges, jungle cabins and camp sites in the valley below, a 20-minute trek through jungle. Just after checking in, a late lunch was quickly put together for us - even though it was then close to tea-time.
Soon after we were taken in a 4x4 to the closest drop-off point, from where we trekked into the forest, with our knowledgeable guide Bandulla. The resort we saw after the brisk trek was straight out of my dream ! The last approach to the resort was after you cross a hanging rope bridge.
With no electricity and almost nothing mechanical, it was back to the basics (literally) !
I enjoyed the experience to the core. And, I sure would go back again. Hope it stays unchanged.
The rooms were all spacious and comfortably rustic. And there was a forest stream gurgling just behind where we stayed. It was beyond serene and beautiful. We never had any insect problems, though I'm not scared of the insects. I am also not scared of the dark, so it was not an issue.
Only kerosene lanterns were provided after sunset for lighting.
Food was typically local. Though not luxurious, it was not bad either.
The best part was the staff were very hospitable and many times, they went out of their way to make sure we were satisfied.
Honestly, I can't think of anything that I didn't quite like about that place.
  • Stayed July 2006, travelled as a couple.
Location :
Ella lies in one of the most scenic parts of the hill country, on the road south from Nuwara Eliya, and relatively close to the lesser-known hill station of Bandarawela.

This eco-friendly park nestles on the banks of Kirindi River, six miles to the south of Ella village, and is at peace with a breathtaking terrain of tropical rain forest, majestic peaks and rushing waterfalls.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Muscat Festival 2012

'Muscat Festival' is perhaps the biggest celebration of its kind in Oman. It's also a huge GCC draw.

This year it is especially more important and significant as Muscat has been declared as the 'Arab Tourism Capital for 2012', besides being voted the “2nd Best City to Visit the World in 2012″ by Lonely Planet, after London !

For your academic interest here is the list of the "Top 10 Cities to Visit in 2012" :

1. London

2. Muscat, Oman

3. Bengaluru (Bangalore), India

4. Cadiz, Spain

5. Stockholm

6. Guimaraes, Portugal

7. Santiago, Chile

8. Hong Kong

9. Orlando, Florida, USA

10. Darwin, Australia

Obviously there's a lot of interest in showcasing the best of Muscat to the immediate GCC and to the world at large.

Interestingly, in all the hustle and bustle at the Muscat festival, I hardly noticed any white skins.

Perhaps Muscat Festival and even Muscat is too tame and docile for their liking !

Al Hoota Cave, Off Bahla, Past Nizwa, Sultanate of Oman

One of my longstanding wishes of seeing the ‘Al Hoota Cave’ was finally accomplished yesterday !

Visitors have to make prior booking before going there as the authorities maintain the footfalls (up to a maximum of 750 persons per day), to protect and safeguard the place.

Every holiday I try to book, they will say it’s closed already. This being a long weekend (Prophet’s birthday, being the reason), I booked in advance and got a slot.

We went by road to Nizwa (about 250 kms from here), and from there to Bahla (about 40 kms from Nizwa) and another 15 kms to the cave’s base. Inside the cave photography is strictly prohibited.

The cave is located at the foot of Jebel Shams (the sun mountain), the highest mountain in Oman which is north of Al Hamra.It is mentioned that the Al Hoota Cave is one of the largest cave systems in the world with an underground cavern complete with stalactites, stalagmites, columns and has an unique underground lake system and such.

There were 3 Omani guides who were standing at well-spaced distances who were at hand to explain to the visitors about the cave and all its natural formations.The walk inside took us about an hour. We had to climb up and down over 300 steps. The entire cavern is about 5 kms long, but only part of it is open for the public.

It was amazing to go into the cave and look at all those natural beauties. It was dark of course, but there were some lights to show the way. It was also cool inside. Actually it was quite large in the inside.

Here are some useful links, in case you want to know more about the ‘Al Hoota Cave’ :

www.alhootacave.com/

www.promooman.com/alhootacave.html

www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDcWbsWmMhA

www.omaninfo.com/tourism-and-travel-experiences/al-hoota-cave-frozen-architecture-huge-lion-shape-stalagmites.asp

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sri Lankan Trip

In Colombo we stayed at a place called 'The Penthouse' (http://www.srilankaaccommodation.com/slaccommodation/thepenthouse/index.HTML).


It is an old colonial mansion that has seen better days ! Frankly now it is a run down place that is falling apart :--) !


The building is said to be over 200 years old. Refer to my attachments for visual references.


What I loved most about that place is the great collection of antique furniture that's lying wasted :--( !


Solid, huge and heavy teak / mahogany / rose wood working tables (I counted at least 5 of these); book shelves (just like the one that I've been searching here for the last 4 years), dressing tables with the same ancient mirrors, beautiful cots complete with bed posts and so much more. I'm sure the owner of the place Dinesh Sellamuttu wouldn't mind sparing some of these items for a true lover of antique wooden furniture like myself ! Incidentally, the lane in which this place is located is called Sellamuttu Avenue. I was told that they are one of Colombo's richest families. Most of the property in that lane is theirs it seems.


It seems that The Penthouse is going to be cut in the front to make way for a road which the Colombo municipality is planning. Hence no repairs or maintenance has been done lately.


Also it seems once the place was thriving. But since the civil war traffic dropped drastically almost to zero occupancy. So obviously no one is bothered about maintaining it.


The Penthouse is just a stone’s throw away from the sea. But we couldn't keep the windows open for long as the sea breeze (if you can call it that) was very strong.


The caretaker kept telling us not to open the windows as the breeze will blow things away ... but then you know Amma !!


She insisted on opening our bedroom window to enjoy the sea breeze and sure enough within minutes the window frame literally got ripped off its wilting hinges and went crashing down. The old wooden frame broke to pieces and the glass shattered into smithereens on the street below. Luckily it did not land on anybody's head !! Else I would be cooling my heels in some Colombo jail on wilful manslaughter charges. Ha ! Ha !


We had the entire Penthouse at our disposal. That means close to 15,000 sq. ft. of it. It had a kitchen, 5 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms large foyer overlooking the Indian Ocean ...


In a long time I think we were its only visitors. Sadly, most of the place is rotting. Except the area which the caretaker uses, the rest of the place isn't even opened.


But I'm sure in its heydays, The Penthouse must have been a rocking mansion. Wonder which all Dorais lived there !


In Colombo security is seriously severe. Since The Penthouse is located in Colombo - 3 (which is the heart of downtown Colombo, with close proximity to the President's Office (Temple Trees) and other major offices), every 10 meter had an armed posse of police presence. We were unfailingly stopped and carefully checked every time we stepped out.


One morning while we were out President Mahinda Rajapaksa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahinda_Rajapaksa) was on the move and so we were herded quickly into the Galle Face Hotel's parking lot (where I stayed with Shyamalie on my return from Ella Adventure Park, the last time I was in Sri Lanka).


It was exciting (for me) to see the security precautions for the President. It was rather professional and serious.


I wanted to catch it with my camera (in video), but both Shyamalie and Amma put their foot down and stopped me. If caught, I could probably have got hauled to the closest police station for further enquiries !! LOL !


The Sri Lankan President's convoy was more functional and serious rather than ostentatious and flashy like Jayalalithaas, where you have 20 odd vehicles with headlights on and sirens blaring, with skinny back cat commandos hanging from Ambassadors with their AK47s !!


Rajapaksas convoy zipped past us in a jiffy. They must be doing close to 120 kmph is my guess. We saw him pass us on Galle Road. First, the road was cleared with road blocks.


Then armed military police quickly took positions facing the people. There were no sirens of any kind. Then some high speed armed patrol flew past in motorbikes.


After some minutes more such bikers came and lined on either side of the streets. Then came his convoy ...


In the speed at which it passed by, I could only notice little ... first went a large Hummer kind of an open jeep packed with some 20 commandos with automatic rifles sticking outside.


There were some 4 - 5 such vehicles.


Then there were 3 identical black, sleek, custom made Mercedes with dark glasses. Each one maintained a gap of about 500 meters between them. In between went these other armed jeeps. The convoy used both sides of the road. So some were on this side of the median while some others were on the other side.


We had no clue in which one Rajapaksa was seated - I think that was the idea !! And the whole convoy crossed us in less than 30 seconds max. I think safety for the President's life is seriously taken in Sri Lanka. And the looming threat from the Tigers is not taken lightly.


Within a minute after he left the road blocks were removed and the roads were back to normal.


Once I saw the convoy of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the monarch of Oman, when I was in Muscat the last time. Oh, that was really amazing ! He was in a stretch Mercedes limousine surrounded by at least a 100 Royal Oman Policemen in their large BMW bikes. That convoy was at least a 100 vehicles strong, complete with a Fire Engines, Ambulances, Towing Vehicles and some 5 helicopters flying at very low altitudes. The beauty of this convoy was it was proceeding at a leisurely 50 kmph speed !!


Colombo is getting paranoid regarding the forthcoming 10-day SAARC Summit. Schools and colleges will remain closed those 10 days. More road blocks have sprung up all over Colombo. Traffic diversions are being made and all kinds of other precautions are being taken.


In fact, even now there is armed patrolling round-the-clock in Colombo, especially around where we were staying. In the beach which was just outside our window, there were armed patrolling. At nights they use strong search lights and scan the shorelines and the sea.


I once went early in the morning to the beach to click some pictures and sure enough 3 armed commandos came and wanted to know who I am and what I am doing. When I showed them the place I was staying (which was bang opposite) they told me to go (and of course, not take any more pictures). After I entered the building they came and cross-checked with the security guard of The Penthouse ! I saw them from the window !!


Despite all this, Colombo is a far better place than Madras is my verdict. The civic sense of the people needs to be applauded. I say Colombo is a better city because the people there follow rules. Two wheeler users wear helmets - even those on pillion. There are no posters on the walls in the city. There are no beggars pestering you in the streets. Smoking is prohibited in the streets. Paan and spitting too. Pedestrians are given the right of way. Vehicles stop if you get on to the street from the curb. Traffic is all one-way only. We were also told that in Colombo - at least in the downtown areas there is no such thing called theft or chain-snatching or robbery, or any such unlawful activities. I guess with so many armed men patrolling the land and the sea the thieves wouldn't get much chance to get away ! The only serious problem that I noticed was the unscrupulous auto drivers ! Most cheat. Since I didn't have change one helpful auto driver offered to get me the change and disappeared with my 1000 Sri Lankan rupees !! 1 Indian Rupee translates to 2.5 SLR.


One of the main reasons for my trip to Colombo was to refurbish my wardrobe - which is easily 10 years old by now ! I shopped like never before. Bought jeans, trousers, shirts - both formals and casuals, shorts and tees. We all did quite a bit of shopping and the final Indian converted amount came to a song ! That alone made my trip worth the while !


We spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Colombo. On Thursday we went to Shyamalie's house in an interior place called Parakaduwa, near a town called Avissawella. The closest city is Ratnapura, which is also the district headquarters. Shyamalie's place is a very lush and beautiful area nestled in a slightly elevated place surrounded by rubber trees all around with gurgling crystal clear streams meandering all over. In fact there is one just opposite to their house. Shyamalie said that when they were small that's where they used to bathe and wash their clothes too. It is indeed a very beautiful and calm and a peaceful place. When we were there it was drizzling some times, pouring heavily some times, hot sometimes and cloudy most of the times. It is almost like a small hill station. Very green and very, very beautiful. We stayed one night in one of their relatives house which was plush ! On Friday it was pouring rather heavily. Sheets and sheets of water ! Amma said that she hasn't seen this kind of rains in quite some time ! We were treated to some authentic Sri Lankan cuisine. We went and saw witnessed the local Perahera (http://www.Google.co.in/search?hl=en&as=X&OI=spell&resnum=0&CT=result&cd=1&q=Perahera&spell=1) - which is some kind of a cultural procession with different kinds of traditional dancers etc and of course lots of decorated elephants and tuskers - in Ratnapura the evening we were there. It happenned to be their Poya Day (Full Moon), which is a national holiday. It was very crowded and because of the rains the ground was slushy. Amma was sure that there will be a bomb blast because it was so full of people. She told me that LTTE would not miss such an opportunity ! But as usual there were enough and more security. We were frisked before being allowed to enter the grounds. Also there were the usual battery of armed patrols all over. So we returned without any incident.


Some time back Amma came and saw me write this mail and urged me not to write such long letters. She said no one will have the patience to read such long mails :--( !


I visited the Dehiwala Zoo, off Colombo one afternoon. It was superbly maintained - far, far better than our Vandalur zoo. The place was so lush and green :--) !


Well ... though I would love to share more details with you I will stop for now.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Kerala : Thekkady & Munnar

Ever since I remember, I have always hated the phrase 'God's Own Country', to describe Kerala. After a very happy and a refreshing trip to various parts of Kerala and after drinking my fill of its natural bounty and beauty, I still hate that phrase !

No doubt Kerala is bountiful, lush, green all over and fresh. But to keep seeing that phrase at every corner can irritate you to no end.Well, having said that let me take you through my excellent holiday to places like Thekkady, Munnar, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Cochin, Aluva and more.

My wife and I travelled mostly by public transport system. Having travelled quite a bit in various parts of the Far East and the Middle East, I can vouch for the fact that travelling by public transport in India is not a difficult task at all. Like they say, it's all in the mind. And quoting John Milton, "Mind in its own place can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven". Coming back to the trains and buses from Madras, to Kerala one need not fear the journey at all. While it might not be as comfortable as travelling by an air-conditioned private limousine, it is nonetheless quite pleasant. The best part of public transport is you get to experience the real and true flavour of the countryside, the people of the soil and the nooks and corners of the places that one might miss if on a highway. I would summarise that there is no better way to absorb and relish the authentic feel of the place by any other means.

Fortunately or unfortunately, rains, rains and more rains, accompanied the whole trip that we took ! It rained throughout, almost non-stop for a stretch of 6 days !! That was quite a dampener, since I was not able to do some of the things that I was looking forward to doing - such as trekking in the jungles of Thekkady. When I enquired about it, I was informed categorically by the Kerala Forest Conservation Department guide that no treks are permitted when it's raining, since the forest beds would be swarming with leeches and a variety of centipedes and numerous other creepy-crawlies ! When I bravely opted to still go ahead with the trek, I was politely, but firmly told to find my way back to safer grounds.

Much has been written about the rains in Kerala. I know what they all mean, now. It does pour heavily at time, then calms down to mild drizzle most of the time, only to start all over again. One key observation of mine is that at no point does the rains stop completely. At the least there is a fine drizzle.

Thekkady is a far cry from some of the other jungle reserves that I've seen. But for a huge, man-made lake, there's nothing else in Thekkady. I was told that on the other side of the lake lies the real jungle, teeming with a huge variety of birds, reptiles, insects, animals and more ! Sometimes, when the jungle gets dry (mostly during peak summer in May / June), the animals out of their natural abode to the lake to quench their thirst. But when we visited the place, there was water, water everywhere and all the drops to drink !! So we were quite unfortunate in not being able to spot any wild animal worth mentioning except the odd herd of sambhar, some wild pigs, a small herd of bison and some waterfowls. Surprisingly we didn't even manage to spot even an elephant, which is perhaps the most common wildlife to be spotted in and around Thekkady's famous lakeside !The boating on the lake, I'm sure, would have been a much more pleasant and a worthwhile affair but for the rains ! We got in for the first trip (at 7 a.m.), which is highly recommended, since it's one of the best times of the day to approach the watering holes. The next best time is at dusk. There are about 5 large motorised barges that take the tourists for a full round of the lake. One way takes an hour. So the full ride take 2 hours. On a good day, I'm sure the lucky tourists would be able to spot many animals around the lake.

We stayed at the modest Periyar Guest House, which is inside the forest reserve. The property has no false ideas or notions about its status as a single-star forest lodge. However, the property is very neat, clean and spacious. The rooms are well furnished and very nice. To imagine that the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation is able to maintain such a nice and neat place for such a long time (I was told that it's over a decade old), is indeed creditable. The second best part of Periyar Guest house is its location. Forests surround all around you. Early in the morning and late in the evenings the songs of birds and the multitude of insect sounds are mesmerising ! It's almost like an orchestra that unfolds upon you ! Quite rightly each window has a caution sticker pasted alerting the visitors for uninvited monkeys, which have gone, so used to seeing humans that they hardly have any fear for them ! They roam around the property in huge groups (I counted one numbering 20 !!). Another group of scavengers that I noticed in plenty are pigs. Not the wild pigs, but their country cousins. They too were seen rummaging all around the property for leftovers.

Periyar Guest house has a nice little dining room where they serve some tasty local delicacies. The buffet spread is modest and the food quality is more than acceptable. It might not necessarily compare with some of the swanky 5-star fares, but nevertheless it is more than mere good. When one has come with some specific objective, apart from just eating, then Periyar's food compares well.Apart from the lake in Thekkady, which is the single biggest attraction, there are some minor tourist attractions like the Plantations Tour (which we took). It's not much. You are taken in an auto rickshaw to a farm house, where a guide takes you around the place and shows you the various trees, plants, creepers and tubers that produce Chili, Cardamom, Clove, Ginger, Garlic, Coffee seeds, Jackfruit and a host of other fruits and flowers. The guide gives you the usual spiel about how they are cultivated, harvested and sent to the markets (usually after a government auction).The tea gardens are another minor attraction in Thekkady. Unlike Munnar, Thekkady is not all of tea gardens, but there are quite a substantial are where tea is grown. For tourists, shopping for spices is another outing. There are a wide variety of spices that are neatly packaged (to suit the pockets of the spectrum of tourists who come from different social strata) and sold.

In all, Thekkady is a very small place. Just about enough to handle a small crowd of tourists. The Forest Reserve is also pretty much basic. There's nothing much to really do there when it rains. But I was told by some locals that during peak summer season, there are many more activities that are arranged - stuff like river rating; jungle treks; the famous (and expensive) tiger-trail, rappelling, et al.

I shall write more about Thekkady in the days to come. But before I get back about Thekkady, I want to share my views and experiences of my next stop, which was Munnar.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Mahabalipuram

Very recently we drove down to Mahabalipuram.

When we started that Tuesday morning, we were not planning to go there. We had planned to visit Vandalur Zoo, which is just outside of Tambaram about 30 kms. from Madras. When we reached the gates of Vandalur, we saw the place a bit desolate for a normal tourist day and then I spotted the bi-lingual baord hanging on the gate which read that all Tuesdays are holidays !

Since we had come prepared for a day out and since our original plan had to be aborted and with nothing better to o, we headed straight to Mahabalipuram, using the old Mahabalipuram road (which was very much in use before the ECR or the East Coast Road came into being).

The drive to Mhabalipuram took us about two hours, since the road was not like the ECR, and the heat seemed rather opressive ! My car a/c didn't do too well and since we were sweating any way inside the car, I thought it would make better sense to roll down the shutter to get some fresh, albeit, warm winds !

On reaching Mahabalipuram we were greeted with so much of warmth (literally) that I thought I'm going to get a sun-stroke !! I would imagine that on that day, the temperature would have been well in the mid-40s !! It was really, really hot ! While talking with a loacl I checked why the place is so very hot and he replied that usually that's how it is, since the coast is so close to the town.

To be continued ...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mission Statement

My fundamental premise in submitting all these following pieces is very similar to that of the widely trusted travel magazine Condé Nast Traveler’s founding principle of Truth in Travel, requiring writers to travel anonymously and pay their own way, to assure credibility and independence from the travel industry.

I experience travel the way you do, good and bad, and I report as you would: freely, fairly, honestly. Sounds noble enough, eh ?! Well that's exactly what I would strive to achieve. To make travel a more enjoyable and an evene more rewarding experience for all those who are pasionate about travelling ... exploring new places ... enjoying new experiences ... understanding new cultures ... imbibing new surroundings ... relisihing new cuisine, and much much more !!

Before I move on to my next travelogue, I would like to do a brief summary or a kind of a synopsis on Kodaikanal. My wish is that this piece should suffice as a ready-reckoner for any one who's planning on a visit to Kodai, in the near future.

Kodaikanal :

What you need to bear in mind :

(i) To carry ample warm clothing (if you're from a warm place and is not so used to chilly climates)
(ii) Not to take more than 1 medium-size suitcase or travel bag (for a stay of up to 1 week)
(iii) Carry cash - most places frown upon and DO NOT accept Credit Cards
(iv) A comfortable walking / hiking shoes / boots
(v) Do some background browsing on Kodai (search for 'Kodaikanal' in Google) prior to your trip
(vi) Avoild local produce(fruits) if you can. Its frightfully expensive and certainly overpriced. Especially the local variety of Hill bananas (each fruit going at Rs. 8.- !!). In taste its close to Kerala's famous Nenthrampalam.
(vii) There are not many nice restaurants in Kodai. So make good with what best you get. Also, the town has far more vegetairan joints than non-vege ones.
(vii) Do take time off to pluck some pears off the trees that grown in the wild, which is in fact, all over Kodai and bite into the luscious, juicy and very, very tasty pears - without having to haggle with any fruit seller in the market place !
(viii) Boating in the Kodai lake is actually no big deal. Don't do it if you don't like to. You won't miss anything !
(ix) Walk around as much as possible. Its really a nice experience. Cycling too is fun. (Remember there are no autorickshaws in Kodai. So its either your feet or a cab ! And the former is a better and more enjoyable alternative !)
(x) Don't stay out late - especially if you're travelling in pairs or in smaller groups.

Hope you find my tips of some use to you !