Thursday, 29 October 2009

Calcutta (Kolkata) – the way India used to be and still is

20091028_060093_DIG_CAL_RTW_9999_A350_Calcutta Victoria Memorial

On leaving the family stops of Raipur and Bombay we made our way to Calcutta. Now named Kolkata, Calcutta is one of the 5 main metropolitan centres of India. It has a really important spot in India’s recent imperial history, as the sight of the headquarters of the East India Company (the trading company set up by the British, which preceded the full occupation of India by the British raj and the establishment of British India) and also the first official capital of British India. Calcutta is littered with old buildings from the time of the Raj, and has a real sense of the history throughout the main city CBD.

However due to the recent politics of the region (a big communist political contingent) development has been severely constraint. As a result the whole city is like a time capsule of India from about 60 years ago. Buildings are all low lying and old, and despite being functionally out of date, they maintain a massive sense of character. The average man’s life is tough and much like the traditional city life of India around the time of independence. There is a buzz everywhere you go, of people fighting to survive.

I got a real sense the Calcutta is an example of how India used to be, but also Calcutta represents how India still is for the for the majority of people in the country. Granted things are all bright and shiny in places like Bombay, but taken in the whole India is still struggling to provide the basic quality of life that should be expected, to the majority of its people. Calcutta is busy, crowded, and full of people working working and working, but not earning earning earning. Just a visit to the main market is an eye opener to the labour intensive struggle of the majority. The differences between the have and have not’s are as stark as the distance between Bombay and Calcutta – they are poles apart.

I enjoyed Calcutta for the purity of the experience and the lack of gloss of some of the other cities. However it is also easy to see how some may find Calcutta unacceptable and tough to manage – in my opinion it is far more of a culture shock than Bombay or Delhi, and lacks the pressure releasing western touches that these other cities have and you can’t dive into endless western styled coffee shops and malls, when the real India gets too much.

To get a feel for the real India one has to visit Calcutta, but make sure you are ready, and mentally strong!!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

A little bit of fame (but noo fortune!)

Our trip to India was primarily about spending time with family and having a break from the world trip after 6 months of travelling. However on arrival, due to the amazing interest people had taken, we were transformed into mini celebrities! and by the end of the family portion of the trip we had done 3 newspaper and 2 TV interviews, and hosted 2 family Q and A sessions for over 200 people. It was an amazing experience and put a new perspective on our trip.

20091016_059723_DIG_BOM_RTW_9999_A350_World Trip Function

The first thing that became apparent is just how big a deal this trip is perceived to be amongst our family in India, and also just how impossible it would be for people to undertake such a venture. I think it was really interesting talking to people about how we went about planning the trip, how we saved for it, and more about our experiences on the trip – what we enjoyed and where we struggled etc. However more important than that was explaining why we were taking on this challenge and travelling round the world. I was glad for this opportunity to distil what we were trying to achieve.

In essence the most important message I wanted to get across to people at home was the value of setting oneself a new and different challenge and working towards achieving it. People of our age in India are very focussed on progressing down a specific line of travel, towards a job/entry into the family business; marriage and kids. However people are totally unable to divert from this thinking and push to achieve other things. I know that our trip is not possible for most in India, but what was important was to use this as an example of doing something different.

We need to be innovative in thinking and test our comfort zones.

The other main topic that came through this taste of fame was just how we could capture the memories and experiences of the trip for the future. Somehow it feels to me that collecting photos and producing a blog would not do the expedition full justice and that something a bit more meaningful is in order. So right now we are thinking of producing a coffee table book that would document our journey through the best of our photos. The aim would be to really showcase the best of our pics, and more importantly enable people, who are not as fortunate as us to travel the world, to see the wonderful places we have. Keep a look out to see how our plans are progressing!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Prince and Princess – Part 1 (A final jolly in Bangkok)

As a final part of my birthday celebrations and as a real early part of our anniversary trip Urvi and I decided to live it up in Bangkok. It’s an awesome city to enjoy the best things in life, with great hotels and food options. Also there is a real sense of east fun here.

20091012_059669_DIG_BKK_RTW_9999_A350_Lebua Hotel Luxury Stay_!

Urvi found the best hotel in Bangkok to stay at – Lebua at the state tower. The hotel is on the 51-64 floor of an amazing building right next to the river. We checked in there for 2 days and a night. The hotel is all suites, so we had an amazing studio, with living space and balcony, just amazing. The most important thing about the hotel was the customer service. From the time we arrived at the front door to the point that we were dropped off by our Limo, we must have been greeted over 100 times. Everything was perfect, the room service, was so good that when the guys came round for the turn down service, they rearranged the slippers for us so our feet won’t get cold!! There was some problem with our original room booking, so even without asking they booked us a limo for the airport and some vouchers for dinner!

All this aside the real wow factor comes when you take a trip to the 64 floor where you are greeted by a swathe of staff, welcoming you to the Sky Lounge, the rooftop restaurant, which is the highest open air restaurant in the world. It is just amazing! We went up there at night and the whole town lay below us glittering with a star show that takes your breath away. I felt literally on top of the world just seeing the sight that lay below and all around us.

I had booked a table at the mandarin oriental for dinner and we took the S Class Merc limo to sweep us in to the hotel, it was magical. We had a lovely table right on the river and the dinner was awesome too!! Totally stuffed we decided to ditch the limo and walk back to our hotel, which was probably the best thing to do!!

The second day we spent at the swimming pool club, having a sumptuous lunch and chilling out at the pool. When it was time to leave we went down to the reception to pick up a car to go to the airport. I was expecting their basic car, only to be greeted by another Mercedes!! And that too black, my favourite colour.

All in all, this was the most perfect way to spend our last days in Bangkok, Thailand and indeed South East Asia. It made us both feel so special and really just made me see just how lucky I am in my life. Sometimes we never appreciate things and special days just set things into context. I will remember all our days from this world trip, but somehow these days are even more golden and sparkly. It is not the fanciness of them or the limos; it is how special we make each other feel.

We are now enroute to India, for the Sub continent stage of our trip. India and Nepal wait...

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Bye Bye South East Asia...

As we sit in the centre of busy bustling Bangkok, it is time to reflect on the end of a most memorable stage of our trip and our lives. SE Asia has been just the most amazing place for us. There has not been a place or experience that I can say we have not enjoyed and there have been many places which have just won a place in our affections. We have been going for 3 months here and it has felt like a lifetime in so many ways. Vietnam was fun and a real mix of interesting experiences we met lots of great friends there and hope that we keep the friendships going!

Saigon was one of the blackest days of my life...

Cambodia was a challenge to us both. It challenged what we think about humanity and really shocked us to the core. I would say it was one of the personally most important places I have been to and probably will visit on this trip.

Laos was a gem, a country where we only visited 3 places but totally fell in love with them.

Thailand was fun fun fun. We have now been to Bangkok 3 times and each time I have enjoyed it more. I love the big city feel, the aspirations of the people, and the grittiness of the residents. The papaya salad and Pad Thai is awesome too!!!!!

Before we arrived in SE Asia I was worried that it was going to be overrun by gap year 18year olds, complete with standard issue backpacks and Beerlao t-shirts. Sure it was exactly like that in parts, but that was part of the fun. However I could also see that I am 31 yrs old now and feel that I want something different from the travelling experience. SE Asia has it all – the fun, the culture, the history, the classy stuff, the vista and most importantly the more amazing people you could ever meet. We only travelled to the mainland SE Asian countries and now want to visit further in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – there is so much more to do!

More generally I feel that we have really hit our stride now on this trip. We have been going for over 6 months, and on our current plane we have just about exactly 1 year left. Over the last few days I have been feeling that we are in the real enjoyable part of the trip, in terms of timing. We are well experienced and well versed I the ways of the backpacker, but we are still not jaded or feel so over confident that we lose sight of the amazing things that we are seeing each day.

Having a year left to go is a great feeling, because right now it just doesn’t seem that this trip will ever end! There is so much we have done and seen, but yet there are bundles of things still to come! Once again I am humbled and proud at the same time that we are able to do this trip.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The tale of the boomerang shoes

One of the big things to do while in Luang Prabang is to go trekking. The hills, rivers and villages that totally surround the town are just beautiful and make for some really rewarding walking. We booked ourselves on to a 3 day trek that took us high into the hills and to some hill tribe villages. For most of the first day all was great. We had a great group of fellow trekkers and the weather was perfect. The route took us through a number of small rivers and streams that just meant that you had to get you feet dirty!! No problem for me, I had my super duper trekking boots that I was ever so proud of (you can see where this is going right?!!)

After a tough first days trek, we arrived at the village where we were to do a home stay. I couldn’t wait to get my shoes off and let my feet dry out, so off they came and I put them to one side next to the hut. It’s safe to say that the next morning when we were to get moving for day 2, the wet socks were still there, but no shoes!

Our guide did a whole search of the village and got the village leader to set up a meeting of all the men in the village. They seemed to think they might have known what happened, but the chief suspect was from another village some way away, and therefore they could follow up the lead there and then. We even discussed a potential bounty for the returned shoes of 200,000kip. This sounds pretty spectacular but was £15!

We needed to move on, so I ended up doing the whole of the second day in Flip Flops, which actually where not too bad. However each step I was thinking of my boots and how someone was striding around in them right at that moment, I was really not happy.

Anyway, to move the story on, while spending days trying to explain to the tour company about needing a report for the insurance claim, we heard the village had chased (literally I guess) the lead they had and one night the boots mysteriously reappeared at the village. They were in perfect condition and had even by dried out!!

I did have to pay the ransom money, but to be honest I was over the moon that they were back. It just shows that we were so right to spend more days in Luang Prabang; otherwise if we had left we would have missed them.

So thankfully new boots are off my shopping list! And despite being £15 lighter, I have my chunky shoes nestled at the bottom of my bag again...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Anand Birthday blog

Lucky for me my birthday landed in the middle of when we were in Luang Prabang, so we were able to celebrate with a really special day. Urvi once again worked wonders and we spent half a day elephant trekking. This was the first time I had ever been this close to an elephant and I tell you, it is the most amazing experience! Despite being so large that they could swish even me with their little toe they are soo nimble and delicate. The terrain was not hilly or anything but still there were some parts where if I was walking I would take extra care, and the elephants were getting through it as if there were steps, it was a sight to behold.

20091002_059449_DIG_LAO_RTW_9999_A350_Luang Prabang Anand Birthday

When you take an elephant trek, there is a real silence that is more than any other trek I have been on; with horses the clop clop of the hooves is noticeable, with elephants all you hear is the swishing of branches as this amazing animal sets through the jungle. It was a most wonderful birthday experience.

On saying good bye to the elephants we headed back to town and had a lovely sandwich lunch with awesome coffee in Joma. Joma is a great bistro coffee shop in Luang Prabang and was our haven where we would retreat from the sun, the rain or a place just to read the paper and play cards!

I then continued my wonder day with a 3 hour session of Lao massage. Now I am not really one to go for these kinds of things but trust me, even I was convinced by the end of it. It is soooo relaxing and pretty good for you. The Laos massage is similar to the more famous Thai massage. It is really nice and I came away from the afternoons inactivity totally chilled out and relaxed.

The day’s theme seemed to be Elephants, as we then rounded the day of with dinner in one of Luang Prabang's most upmarket eateries - L’Elephant. It was a really special meal, and the service was outstanding. Despite most of the servers and waiters being school/college age, they were really very professional and a credit to the restaurant. It was like being in a Michelin starred restaurant in Laos!!!

31 years old, so many things to think about and improve on, but a perfect day to forget everything and enjoy, and look forward to celebrating 32!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Luang Prabang – lose yourself in noodle soup or coffee

20091003_059499_DIG_LAO_RTW_9999_A350_Luang Prabang Photo Teaching

We are now in the northern half of Laos and the jewel of South East Asia for me – Luang Prabang. I kind of think of it as a mix between Hoi An and Don Det. It is so cultured and beautiful that it makes you feel like you have gone back in time to a small French colonial getaway – just like Hoi An. On the other hand it is sleepy and welcoming and takes you slowly by the hand just like Don Det. In truth Luang Prabang is unique and not like anywhere else.

If you arrive by bus here, it is a windy adventure through the mountains that leads to this misty lost outpost. Once you are here, you can’t feel alone, there are so many travellers and also main stream tourists that there is always someone to talk to and share travelling stories with. Although there are none of the big 5 star hotel here yet (thank goodness), there are plenty of boutique hotels to cater for the sneaker wearing high spending American Chinos. Thankfully there are also many wonderful small guesthouses that cost no more that $5 per night for a room. There are plenty of things to do around the town also (trekking, kayaking, caving elephant tours etc), but when you walk around it, and lose count of the days you have been here, you know that Luang Prabang has got you.

It is times and places like these that I truly feel the freedom of a trip like ours. No 3 week deadline and no need to get back to work. We can sit back and sip coffee all day until the sun disappears, and then do it all again tomorrow! That pretty much what we did some days and totally loved it.

Luang Prabang is a world heritage city, and totally justifiably. Once again, it’s the people that make it even more special. Each night the main road, that runs through the heart of the main town is overtaken by the most wonderful night market. Sure there are lots of tourist souvenirs to be had, but there was none of the strong arm tactics of the Chinese or Vietnamese sellers. The ladies were so nice, and the young girls who were learning the trade were so adorable. You can tell that people in this market were not selling for grim survival. Sure people were not rich, but this was their trade and not a last ditch attempt at staying afloat. For me this was much more relaxed and made for a far nicer window shopping experience. We walked round there so many times, it was a bit of a routine, and made for a lovely end to a busy day of doing not very much!!

During one of our walks around the town we came across this amazing charitable programme called @ my library. Set up by an American who came to visit and stayed for 8 years(!) the library was set up to help young adults learn and improve their English. They loan out books, have computers and a host of learning aids and games to help the guys and gals out. They also have cameras and printing facilities, and support kids to learn photography.

I was really impressed with some of the work they had displayed - it was amazing. It showed me that photography is not just about big lens and expensive kit. It is fundamentally an art of using your eyes and mind to capture what you see around you. I was so motivated by the place and the work of the kids that I volunteered to take some guys out and help them with their photography. I did this for a day and it was the most nerve racking thing I have ever done. Don’t really know why, but I guess I was teaching someone something that I am still learning. I had to condense my thinking on photography into something that would be useful for the guys and I wanted it to be fun. This was all in one session and when we had never met each other before. The guys i went out with were great, one – Sek, did not know English at all, but was so keen and interested to take pictures, it was a real inspiration to me. It was a great day, and I think I probably learnt more from it than they did!! I hope that we can do some more ‘work’ like this through the trip. I want to contribute to others lives not just enjoy what their country has to offer me, let’s see how that goes...

Luang Prabang has been an experience for me in so many ways. Both Urvi and I have had time to slow down, and really talk and think about many things. Also purely from a travelling perspective, I have enjoyed being in now place for some time. Somewhere new and unfamiliar that we could make our own and make familiar for US. So much so that we had our own range of local eats that we would visit and Urvi’s favourite was thee noodle soup lady – we ate at the same noodle soup stall so many times, that she knew our veggie order, and even before we made it to the stand she would be starting to make it. It was a really warming feeling...

All the guidebooks say that Luang Prabang will hold you and not let you go. I totally see that. We loved it and would love to spend more and more time here. However as will all good things they must come to an end, and India is calling......!

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