Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A European Sojourn

There is “Time of your life” by Greenday playing in the background as I sit and recount my wonderful European sojourn. Such an apt number for this journey me and my friend undertook together.

Here’s a sneak peak:

Number of continents: 1 for me and 2 for my friend(flew from India)

Number of countries: 4

Number of cities: 6

Time: 3 weeks

Budget: 2500 euros per person (including accommodation, travel, food, partying, souvenirs)

Budget exceeded by: 0 euros (not considering some exorbitant shopping which off course was not planned – total exorbitant spend – 254 euros)

Budget left: 31.49 euros :D


I am returning to blogging after a long long long time. But, I promise to make it up to all of you with these memoirs. Watch out this space for the stories on our first stop – PARIS!

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Hiking in the woods!

I had an interesting weekend last week. I was enjoying a beautiful evening with barbecue and some new friends on Saturday and to burn all that fat, I accompanied a bunch of people for a hike in the woods of Netherlands.

I had an early Sunday morning and an eventful journey ahead of me. We were to meet at the Driebergen Ziest station to commence our hike. It took me two hours and three trains to reach my first destination. Having said that, I must add that the trains in Holland are incredibly comfortable and fast and very unlike the local trains of Mumbai. I did witness a strange sight in my train from Rotterdam to Utrecht central though. There was a girl with a Mohawk for a hairstyle and if that was not radical enough, she had tricolor hair – blue, shocking pink and black. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of strange visuals for the day!

We were eight of us and a truly international bunch – Danish, Scottish, Indian (yours truly), Dutch, Finnish and New Zealand. We were to walk in the Utrechtse Heuvelrug - an interesting area which has numerous hiking and cycling routes. Armed with maps and apparently a very detailed description, we set out on our beautiful journey. We crossed forests, sands and wide open spaces in our path. We were blessed by great weather during the entire trek. We did have some rain, but this time it felt wonderful. The sound of raindrops falling on the trees was surreal. It felt as if the tall trees were sheltering us against the rain knowing that we were walking underneath them. We did have some strange encounters, like at one point of time, we found ourselves on a queer, rather narrow concrete bridge in the middle of the forest, standing over what looked like a dried up and dirty canal of sorts.

The terrain of our hike was quite diverse. At one moment we will be surrounded by trees and at the next we will suddenly come upon a clearing with sand under our feet and lavender flowers all around. At one such clearing we saw benches strewn around on the sand with placards saying “BAR” or “DANSCIE” on the benches. Just when we thought that this was absolutely crazy, we saw something crazier. A troupe of girls dressed in fancy dress. We wanted to imagine that they were natives of this area – considering many were dressed in animal prints and red Indian clothes. We could not let our imaginations run wild because we realized that we were gatecrashing a student orientation programme. I have never seen an orientation like this in my life.

We were a fun group. Some of us were very imaginative and would think that we were crossing a perilous jungle infested with poisonous mushrooms and green lagoons. What fun! Add to that, we had blueberries, fresh from the shrubs into our mouths – I presume to give us energy! We had an environmentalist amongst us, so many a time, we would stop to look at ants, mushrooms of all kinds and other tiny animal life in the woods.

The berries were not a sustainable source of energy so we had to stop for lunch. We stopped at a small and very dutch town on our way. Very dutch = beautiful homes with large glass windows adorned with plants and knickknacks and no curtains off course. Our lunch was at Lunchen bij de Jonckvrouw. I had a vegetable pie (vegagroente taartje as it was called in the menu) and it was quite something. The portion was huge and the pie was delicious. As we left the eetcafe to resume our hike, we saw another unusual visual. A troupe of bikers, this time, with HUGE Harley Davidson bikes which had equally huge side cars for some reason. Albeit, we were not the only ones in the mood to explore the Netherlands.

The second half of our hike saw us searching for a pyramid. No, the walking had not gone to our heads and we were not imagining that we were in Egypt. Our very detailed description said that there should be a pyramid in our path and we had missed it. So, enterprising as we were, a few of us decided that we will unearth the pyramid of Netherlands. We did find the pyramid and the picture says it all. It was a huge structure in the middle of nowhere and you had to pay to climb it. We decided to pass the climbing and were happy only to discover the pyramid of Netherlands.

We walked from 11 in the morning to about 5:15 in the evening that Sunday and me and one of the ladies from the hike also sprinted briefly to catch our train to Rotterdam. For me, it was a Sunday well spent and I am looking forward to doing something like this again.

For those of you who would want to try the hike, check out this link – http://www.eropuit.nl/uitje/title/UtrechtseHeuvelrugwandeltocht/id/1000037/. The information is in dutch, but then what is google translate for.

So, this time, Happy Hiking people!

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

I have changed homes!

Strange title to a post – isn’t it! Well, I have been changing homes since the past 7 years, since in the city of Mumbai you will not be allowed to have a lease agreement for more than 11 months, so its quite an insignificant activity for me to make announcements about it on my blog. But what IS significant is that I have been calling the city of Delft and the tiny country of Netherlands my home since the past two months now and THAT deserves an announcement!

I am a small town girl now and things are very different – they will be – I live below sea level! My hometown Delft is a cute little town, which is so small that if I am not lazy enough, I can actually just walk from one end to the other and it will be done within a few hours. It has brick laid streets, beautiful buildings and a lovely town square. The town square is my favourite part of the town. It is lively, there is always something happening there and its good fun! It is in the true sense of the expression – a cute, cosy European town and its nice or leuk! (as the dutch would say!)

So, you can see that I am quite enjoying myself in my new hometown and what makes my heart leap out with joy is that Delft has tons of restaurants serving up cuisines from across the globe. You know where this post is going by now, I am getting back to writing about – the love of my life – you guessed it right – FOOD (Kedar, if you were reading this and thinking it was you – Sorrrry!).

People who have been reading my blog will know that I am a chocolate monster and the first place I am going to write about is a chocolaterie. Since the time I saw the movie Chocolat, I have been dreaming of visiting a shop like the one owned by the protagonist in the movie and wondering if such shops do exist in the world. Well, my dream came true when I visited this shop at Voorstraat. Its temptation galore as you enter this shop with all sorts of chocolates lined up to feast your eyes on. It has a beautiful warmth about it. They sort of specialize in chocolates made from or filled with liquers and their collection does seem unique. Try their dark chocolate bar with nuts and the apple and cinnamon truffles. I can still taste them, so good were they!! They also give you a pretty paper bag to carry your exquisite purchases and you can order online from www.chocolaterie.nl and enroll for a chocolate making workshop! Pretty cool I think!

If all this shopping is making you thirsty then its time to go to De Ruif Eetcafe. Order a glass of white wine and alongwith it what they call He Bolle. He Bolle is typical finger food freshly baked bread – slightly crusty on the outside, topped with sesame seeds and nice and soft on the inside alongwith tapenade (a sort of paste of olives with olive oil and sundried tomatoes or capers - the recipe could vary) and aioli (a sauce of garlic and olive oil). Grab a table outside on the barge if the weather is nice (notice the dutch influence) and you are sure to have a great time.

Dinner time! The options are a charming eaterie in the town centre or a surprise at Kromstraat. Take your pick.

The charming eaterie being referenced to is the Boterhuis. I like it so much that I have already dined there twice. Boterhuis means a butterhouse and it seems like it was one centuries ago and the decor has been kept intact to retain the old world charm. Reserve a table on the lower level and you can enjoy a great meal with the canal by your side. The ambience is minimalistic with wrought iron candle stands adorning the slightly dilapidated walls. The lower level also has a huge wrought iron gate as a reminder of the bygone eras. Their herbed risotto with shallots and mushrooms is an absolute must-have. It is a simple yet delicately flavoured, creamy risotto with just the right level of cheese to suit my palette. Also try the portobello mushroom with goat cheese or the goat cheese strudel. They keep changing menus like most restaurants in Delft so don’t be disappointed if you don’t find these dishes. I am pretty sure whatever else is on their menu is equally great.

The surprise at Kromstraat is De Kurk. Kromstraat is a typical student hangout street and to find such a restaurant there was quite a pleasant surprise. De Kurk looks like any regular bar when you enter. But once inside, what awaits you is a beautiful restaurant inside a glasshouse. So even when its raining you can still get your fill of eating outside. The menu for vegetarians is quite limited. Two starters and one maincourse, but the food is great. The vegetarian salad is simple yet scrumptious. My colleague was nice enough to let me dig in when he had this. The highpoint of the meal for sure is the maincourse, consisting of spinach quiche with a gorgeous, slightly creamy sauce on the side and those amazing potato cakes these dutch make.

Try some of these places and let me know what you think. I shall keep updating you all on my stint in the Netherlands. Until then, as I always say – Happy Eating!

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Big Bad Bangkok!

We had just two days left for our trip and it was time to live it up – literally!. We were booked in the Baiyoke Sky Hotel – which is considered to be among the tallest buildings in Thailand, and we were to stay in the space zone. We were really looking forward to this even when we planned our trip. We arrived at the hotel and were put up in a room on the 72nd floor. When we entered our room, we were exhilarated, we felt that we had arrived in life! The room was BIG, with huge glass windows and the view from the room of the streets below was out of this world. It was equipped with all the modern amenities one could desire. We paid about 72 USD/person/night for this room and we were charged about 8 USD for our taxi from the airport to the hotel.

The hotel in itself is quite an attraction. It is a shopping complex, hence other than evenings, the corridors are quite crowded. There is a rooftop bar overlooking the whole of Bangkok on the 83rd floor and on the 84th floor is the revolving deck with a 360 degree view of Bangkok. Extremely interesting! Although, getting a seat by the window in the bar in the evening can get quite tricky and the live band can be annoying – it was for me , too loud and cheap for my taste. But then there was Bangkok – all glittering and beautiful, and all below me, so I was not complaining at all.

The way to the observation deck has interesting aliens on the stairway along with pictures of the solar system and the music from 2001 a space odyssey completing the experience. My friend particularly became friendly with one of the aliens as can be seen in this picture!

Between the two Baiyokes – Baiyoke star and Baiyoke sky, a market is set up from 4 in the evening till 11 in the night and we picked up quite some interesting stuff from there. By the time we were done, a complimentary foot massage was awaiting us in the hotel. Since we were staying in the most expensive set of rooms, we had loads of freebies attached to our room. We had a complimentary breakfast, a complimentary foot massage, complimentary fruits and welcome drink and what not. The breakfast was one huge eclectic spread of cuisines.

But the best part was the massage. The spa is open till midnight so after shopping for the entire day a massage can be easily scheduled. The massage was absolutely wonderful and although it was free the masseurs did not rush up on things and gave us the most relaxing massage ever.

As the night fell, we realized that our big fat international holiday was ending. The next day, we took a flight back home, with our bags full of shopping and our minds full of memories we will cherish forever!

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Phi Phi Galore!

Ko Phi Phi Don was the beginning of the more luxurious part of the trip. We bought this trip from the same travel agent who had arranged for our trip to Phang Nga Bay. This time a huge ferry awaited us at Rassada pier. The sun deck was already crowded with people and the atmosphere was quite festive. We were served a complimentary breakfast of coffee and warm croissant and we were cozy already. It was a breezy and comfortable ride.

At Phi Phi, we were greeted by clear, azure waters, white sands and an absolutely cozy atmosphere. Hotel reservations were being offered on the ferry, however, we had booked ours online through “Global Reservations”. We were booked at the PP Casita resort and to tell you the truth, I was very skeptical about this place because we had booked online and did not have much information about the place and had paid the full amount in advance. So, I was really worried that it may not turn out good. But guess what, I was wrong. P P Casita was beautiful, in fact the word that comes to my mind when I think of it is "Delicious"!! Quite an odd word to describe a place to stay! But, PP Casita is done up in such a way that it deserves the description. The place has quaint cottages at a raised level with plants growing all around each cottage. The rooms are beautifully done up in Maroon, lavender and white. They are new, spacious and have an electronic safe and a fridge. The bathroom also boasts of an interesting decor. It almost feels like home. We stayed in the fan bungalow as we were on a budget, but realised that its better to take up an A/C room in phi phi as it gets quite hot inside the room during the day even though it was December. We paid about 20 USD per night per person for our lovely abode.

Phi Phi was certainly the high point during my two week vacation. For people who believe that a day trip from Phuket or Krabi is enough for Phi Phi, think again. Phi Phi is perfect for an idyllic holiday where all you can do is chill, relax, make friends at a bar and walk apart from snorkeling, climbing and diving.

Snorkeling trips can be bought from a number of agencies here, however, I would specially want to recommend Spider Monkey. We bought our snorkeling trip from them. They are essentially a climbing shop and specialize in climbing expeditions around Phi Phi island. They also have their own longtail boat, which can be rented for snorkeling trips. The best part about this shop, however, is the people who run this place - an english girl and her thai boyfriend. Very friendly and honest people who are a delight to talk to. The other interesting bit is that they have some really cool merchandise for sale like T-shirts, trousers etc. and we did end up buying quite some stuff from them.

When in Phi Phi, it is strongly recommended to just chill, relax and take your time. A perfect place to do so while you sip some interesting dessert coffee and watch the world go by is D’s bookshop. D's bookshop is apparently is a chain of bookshops in Asia, however, it was my first run-in with this place in Koh Phi Phi Don. A lovely shop in an idyllic setting with a nice little cafe serving up great coffees and desserts. They rent and sell second hand as well as first hand books. It’s a great place to strike up conversation with a fellow traveler.

Phi Phi is pretty well-known for its nightlife and there is something for everyone here. There are bars on the beach, there are cafes showing movies, shops which are open till 11 in the night. Its one festive place! Looking for something romantic, what better than to walk on the beach with your beloved with a medley of music ranging from ballads, pop and rock and the sound of crashing waves to give you company. Priceless!

We were up for something exciting and ended up spending our Christmas eve at one of the most popular bars in Phi Phi – Carlitos. Even the entrance to this bar is intriguing – it sports a hilarious signboard giving distances to Rekjavik, Mexico etc. – absolutely sets the mood for the traveler in you right away. Carlitos is right on the beach, so much so that as the tide changes, the waves start crashing at your feet and you will have to shift your table behind. It is packed most times and it seems like a global meeting joint as you will be surrounded by people from a number of nationalities at any point of time. Carlitos has a fireshow everyday after 10 pm, however, when we went, there was none, but we were not disappointed as we saw a fireshow done by the restaurant next door and it was simply awesome!

We liked Phi Phi so much that we wanted to extend our stay there, but the next day was Christmas, and everything was booked. We had to leave Phi Phi with a heavy heart.
We were approaching the final leg of our trip and we were going to live it up in style. More in the last post of this series. Keep reading!
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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ahoy Thailand!

We had a crazy itinerary for Thailand. We were to first spend four days in Phuket, two days at Ko Phi Phi, back for another two days in Phuket and then one night in Bangkok. Phew!, cant believe I actually managed all of that! This time we took a flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Siem Reap airport was beautiful. A small and less busy airport compared to many, but aesthetically constructed and peppered with glimpses of south east asian architecture. We took the Bangkok Airways flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok and then an Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Phuket. The damage for the Bangkok Airways flight was 142 USD per person while for Air Asia we paid about 65 USD per person – now you know why we did the treacherous road journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap!

Both were really short flights and in no time we were flying over a beach to land in Phuket. Phuket airport is adjacent to a beach and is a famous airplane spotting destination for many airplane fanatics. I had one with me and airplane spotting was definitely on the cards during this trip. But for now, we needed to check in to our home in Phuket. We had a car waiting for us and we were whisked away to this beautiful city with wide roads, modern construction and lush green countryside. It was quite a drive from the airport to our guesthouse at Karon beach. We were staying at Pineapple Phuket. Pineapple Phuket was a far cry from the homely surroundings of Two Dragons at Siem Reap. It was not actually a bad place, but I would not essentially recommend it to anyone.

Our first spell of four days in Karon was not as good an experience for me as I fell sick the moment we reached there and with a horrible congestion in my chest, and difficulty finding vegetarian food, my holiday was turning into a nightmare of sorts. But things started looking up with our trip to Phang Nga Bay, James Bond Island and Monkey Island. It was the most touristy thing we did but it was completely worth it. We bought the trip from one of the many travel agents at Karon beach and after that we did not need to worry about anything. We had a minibus pick us up from our guesthouse, take us to the pier, there was food served on the boat and all we had to do was have a great time. We went through some really interesting caves in canoes during this trip. And hyped or not, the James Bond Island is definitely worth a visit. It is stunningly beautiful and I have never seen anything like this before.

We also visited an interesting museum of shells and were completely blown away by the arrangements of shells and the sheer variety on display. Again touristic but highly recommended.

Something else that livened things up for me was shopping at the town centre in Phuket. It is a shoppers paradise, particularly for ladies. It has great bargains on everything ranging from clothes to jewelery to bags – and oh what bags!. I bought quite some of them.

Although, food was sort of a problem for me at the Karon beach, we did manage to find some good places. We found this tiny yet charming café at Karon called Enjoy café. Enjoy offers condos as stay arrangements and has a cafe on the ground floor. We went there for breakfast one morning and fell in love with the place. The cafe is clean and the coffee and food fresh. I had viennese coffee for the first time and loved it. The crossiants were fresh and warm and since we were early it was just us. The lady serving us was extremely friendly and we sure had a good time there.

Another interesting place was a restaurant called Trattoria at the Kata beach. It is run by an Italian and hence most of the patronage is Italian there. The ambience is like any other cafe in Phuket and like any other place in Thailand the staff was friendly and the service fast.I had a vegetarian pizza there and it was easily the best pizza I have had ever. All the vegetables had been sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with herbs. Everything was very fresh and delectable. My non-vegetarian friend also enjoyed his pizza as much as I did mine.

On one of these days, we hired a car and went to the Mai Khao beach and the airport beach – Nai Yang for airplane spotting. We clicked quite some pictures of planes of various colours, shapes and sizes and I was most excited on seeing a sea plane which I call the sea-duck based on the popular cartoon series tailspin which I used to watch as a kid. It brought back the child in me watching a sea-duck in real life.

The most beautiful place we visited in Thailand was Ko Phi Phi and to know about that you will have to wait for my next post!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mesmerizing Angkor

The idea of this vacation was to explore the adventurer and the historian within us. We wanted to experience the thrill, the wonder of being in a 900 year old temple complex which was lost in time and rediscovered by some unknown traveler and remains the biggest jigsaw puzzle of the world. We were in Siem Reap to visit the temples of Angkor and our friend and guide in this sojourn was Joy – our car driver whom we paid 25 USD/day. We decided to begin our historical journey by first paying homage to the most famous of the temple complexes – Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It was later modified by various kings to represent a dedication to Buddism as well.

To visit any of the temples around Siem Reap, what you need is a temple pass. We bought a three day temple pass for 40 USD per person. Angkor Wat and the temples are essentially in a forest and now concrete roads have been constructed owing to the tourist attraction these temples have become. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge water body called a moat and all the structures in the complex have intricate carvings of apsaras and incidents from hindu mythology. The fact that these temples were later converted to Buddist, is also visible in the statues of Buddha placed amidst a typical hindu mythology incident. On one of the outer walls of this complex, there is an intricate carving describing the war between Pandavas and Kauravas – the battle of Kurukshetra. It’s a beautiful and extremely complex carving.

We also managed to visit Ta Phrom that afternoon. This complex has been almost completely eaten away by the forest. It is almost as if nature was taking its revenge against man. But its beautiful the way it is. One of the spots at this complex has been made famous by Angelina Jolie as a sequence of her movie Tomb Raider was shot here. It’s the place where everyone wants to get a picture clicked and there is actually a queue to get yourself clicked. I managed to anger quite a big group of tourists by posing in front of this landmark without realizing that I was breaking the queue.

The next day, we were up early in the morning to see the sunrise over the towers of Angkor Wat. It’s the most wonderful sunrise I have seen. When we reached, there were hundreds of people already waiting for the sun to rise. It almost felt as if we were all one big global community waiting together with bated breath to watch the oft-seen spectacle of sunrise, however this time over the mesmerizing towers of a centuries old temple. It was spectacular.

During the course of three days we visited the Bayon, Phimeneakas, Preah Khan, and Angkor Thom. We did not hire a guide to these places and hence we were on our own amidst these mysterious temples. We sometimes found a cool spot and just sat there amidst the beautiful carvings of apsaras, Gods, demons, garudas and wondered what this place would be like in its true grandeur. One of my friends carried a book on Angkor with her and at times we played this fun game of finding structures mentioned in the book and felt like discoverers when we finally managed to find it. Archeologists from around the world have worked on solving the jigsaw puzzle of these temple complexes and what can be seen now is the partial solution. The solution is sometimes wrong, we found, as most of these temples are Hindu temples and being Hindus, we realized that the symbols and the structures were slightly mixed up at times.

My favourite temples amongst the ones we visited were Bayon and Ta Phrom. Bayon - an interesting mix of manmade art, history and intrigue and Ta Phrom – nature’s work of art, destructive yet beautiful. The creativity of both man and nature is astounding in these monuments. Although, I managed to get lost in Bayon, the monument with its 200 faces of Lokeswara, staring at you in all directions with the same peaceful expression, will stay fresh in my memory for a lifetime.

I wish to go back to Siem Reap and to Angkor as one visit is not sufficient to take in the glory of these wonders. Some day, I will go back to get in touch with the explorer within me. Till then, it was Thailand calling!

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