Travel

Sri Lanka and Maldives

As our 10th marriage anniversary was nearing, we decided to celebrate our decade long companionship with something we both like. Yes, to travel new places and  we decided to start with our first foreign trip to the nearest and beautiful country Srilanka and then to gorgeous Maldives.

Sri Lanka

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We took the late midnight flight to Colombo from Bangalore on board Sri Lankan Airlines, and were so excited to reciprocate the “Aayu bo wan” (meaning “Hello” in Sinhalese) of the staff with equally broad smile. It was an hours flight and the beautiful sunrise in the far horizon welcomed us to the Island nation of Srilanka. As it was December, the Christmas month, the Bandar Nayake International Airport was lit up with the Christmas trees, flowers and decorations, even our sleepy son started singing Jingle Bells at 6 am!!

After completing the required immigration procedures, we were welcomed by our tour co-ordinator, Mr. Surendra Jaysinghe, who then drove us to Negombo, a quaint beach town, our first stay and sight seeing place which is around 18 kms from Colombo.

Our itinerary covered the Western, Central and Southern Provinces of Sri Lanka.

Day 1 – Negombo:

After some rest we went to our first sight seeing place Dutch Fort and Church. The fort was originally built by Portugese to defend Colombo but, later was destroyed by Dutch and they again re-built it. The fort is near the lagoon and the inlet of the sea. Later English occupied it and today we can see only part of the walls and an arched gateway remains of the fort. Now it is used as a prison.

We visited the Church nearby which was well maintained. After  visiting another church nearby we visited the Dutch Canal also called as Negombo canal. It is a 100 km man made canal built by the Dutch and used for transportation purpose in the olden days. It was evening and we decided to see the sunset from the Silvasa Beach which was walking distance from our Hotel. After watching the beautiful sunset in the Indian ocean we retired for the day.

Day 2 – Dambulla:

Our destination for the day was Dambulla, 140 kms from Negombo. Enroute we visited the Pinnawala Elephant Orphange, where volunteers and caretakers provide shelter and take care of orphaned, abandoned and injured elephants from the jungle and within the park. It was exhilarating to watch so many elephants from the close vicinity. A lot of Chinese tourists were also visible, indicating the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka which is obviously strategically worrying India!  We watched people feeding milk to baby elephants who gulp one bottle after another in under a minute. It was almost 1 pm and time for the gentle giants to do their favouite thing and that is to bathe in the nearby river. Its their routine here at Pinnawala to take the elephant herd to the nearby river where they spend all their free time and  enjoy basking in the sun and playing in the waters. So we went to the river  before hand to occupy a place from where we can easily see them. And indeed it was awesome to see around 200 elephants from the youngest to the oldest, coming in group navigated by the the mahouts and straight away plunge in to the river.

On our way back to the vehicle, we paid a visit to the store where everything from jewellery to showpieces were made of elephant dung!!!! Highly ecofriendly!

Our next stop was at an elephant ride, which was very expensive for an hours ride (about SL Rs. 4000 equivalent to INR 1900 per head!) and we decided not to take it. It was nothing new to us since we have been seeing elephants in India since childhood and had taken an elephant ride in Kerala.  But westerners find elephants very interesting and go for the ride…moneywise as well as…. the actual ride.  From there we headed to Sigiriya near Dambulla which was our next stay.

Day 3 – Sigiriya: 

Sigiriya is a UNESCO listed world heritage site. Sigiriya also means Lions Rock in Sinhala language, is a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres (660 ft) high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, the site was selected by King Kasyapa for his new capital, who seized the throne from King Dhatusena. But, the rightful heir, Moggallana, who fled to South India fearing for his life, built an army in India and subsequently defeated King Kasyapa in Sigiriya.

The rock can be climbed to the top, which takes over 2500 steps. But, unfortunately predicted weather report didn’t go wrong this time around, and there was rain the whole day, which coerced us see the rock from far and miss a golden opportunity of climbing the rock fortress and witnessing the surreal view from the top. Don’t get me wrong but this rock fortress is the highlight of Sri Lanka tourism. We spent the day in our hotel Sigiriya Village Resort from where we have the towering view of this massive rock.

Day 4 – Kandy: 

It was a clear and beautiful day with sunshine and no clouds or rain. But, we had to leave for our next destination Kandy or else we would be missing other places on our itinerary (that’s the problem with fixed itineraries, Oh! How Nikhil hates it). Though un-happy for the earlier day, we once again visited the Sigiriya rock, sans climbing, we also wanted to take some pictures which we could not due to the heavy rains the earlier day. After posing for the camera, we went to see the Dambulla cave temple, which we were supposed to cover earlier day. Dambulla cave temple is also a World heritage site. It is the largest and best preserved cave temple in Srilanka.  As we were running short of time, we again dropped witnessing the caves which again involves some climbing to do, but, decided to see the museum run by the temple. The museum hosts the pictures, statues and write ups about the history of Buddhism and also depicts the carvings and statues present in the caves.

After going through the museum, we left for our next destination Kandy. As we started to climb the hills, so begin the tea estates and we took a halt to visit one of the tea estates. A staff of the tea factory (Glenloch) took us around the process of tea powder making and a tour of the factory. After going through this and visiting a small museum maintained by the estate where we could see the evolution of tea making from older day machinery to the new one, we sat for a fresh cup of tea.  After purchasing some speciality tea powders of Srilanka, we left for Kandy.

It was a uphill journey so we took a break at a road side joint for lunch, unlike India every small hotel in Srilanka are very clean.  The washrooms too are spic and span.

We reached Kandy by evening and our first destination was Tooth Relic temple before retiring for the day. Kandy is a very beautiful city and the weather was perfect.

The Tooth Relic Temple is located in the Royal Palace complex, near a beautiful lake.  It takes a long walk through the lawns to the temple. Tooth Relic temple is the sacred place for Buddhist. It is believed that after the death of Lord Buddha, one of his tooth was retrieved and worshipped as sacred. We cannot actually see the Tooth relic as it is covered and protected. As told by our guide, only once in a year it is taken out during the festive time. Behind the main temple is the World Buddhism museum.  This museum contains lots of photographs, models and displays illustrating Buddism.

Behind this main building where the Temple of Tooth Relic is the Audience hall, which is a open air pavillion with stone columns, which actually looks like wooden pillars. Adjacent to this hall we can see the  stuffed remains of Raja, the elephant, highly regarded in Sri Lanka for the services that the gentle giant rendered to the Kingdom during its lifetime.

Outside the temple there is a beautiful garden where we can see some really old antique stone carved pieces. The temple is so peaceful that you will never know how much time one spent there in the quite surroundings. After taking in the peacefulness of the temple,  we went to our hotel, Richmond house, perched on the top of a hill in picturesque Kandy.

This was one of the best hotels we stayed. It was a thrill, to reach this hotels entrance from the road as it was situated at a highly elevated level from the road. The hotel kept a tuk tuk to carry the luggage and guests since even our vehicle couldn’t revv up. The place was very exquisite and pleasing. The suites were spacious, stately and elegantly furnished. The balcony provided a splendid view of the lush green hill city of Kandy.

Day 5 – Kandy:

My favourite day. Why? We started our day with the visit to Gem factory followed by gem store. Srilanka is famous for its precious and semi precious stones.  On entering the gem store, we were greeted by the guide who first showed us a video about, what gem varieties are found in Srilanka and how they are mined. From the video we could see that mining gems is a manual job and sometimes can be dangerous too, as the mine workers excavate places where they assume gems can be found and then support the place with bamboo or wood and climb down and excavate the muddy soil, in which there can be gems!!

Thereafter we went to the place which was like a small museum,  where we saw different kinds of precious and semi precious stones, some in their raw shape and size. There were rubies, emeralds and variety of sapphires on display.

We were led downstairs to the jewellery shop where there were incredible pieces of gem jewellery on display.  After some purchases, we left for the next sight seeing place the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peredeniya.

What we noticed in Srilanka (as in India) is that the entry fees varies for local citizens, foreigners and foreigners from Saarc countries.  After buying the tickets, we entered the huge botanical garden finely maintained.  A signboard at the entrance with a map feature a numbered circuit from 1 to 30. These corresponding numbers are placed at every strategic points, so that we can stroll around the garden without getting lost.  There was a artificial lake shaped in the form of Srilanka map with many water plants icluding giant lillies.  Varieties of plants and trees, many of which we see in India too. The garden covers 147 acres of land.  A river runs through the side of the garden and there is a  suspension  bridge constructed over it.  We rested  for sometime beside the huge and lush green lawns.  The Royal Botanical garden is famous for its collection of variety of orchids. We could only see some of the orchid flowers as it was non orchid season. There are variety of  trees, flora and fauna, chinese bamboos, palm trees, fig tree, spice garden, ferns etc. We strolled around the campus at leisure, in the shades of huge trees taking rest now and then. It took us almost 3 to 4 hours to take a round tour. The garden has so much to offer that one could easily spend a whole day here.

It was afternoon and we were all famished after the long walk so we decided to go to our hotel for lunch and some rest.

Evening time was for the Kandyan cultural dance performance which was scheduled at 6 pm. We went through the well maintained and clean curvy roads of the city to the Kandyan Arts Association which was situated near the Kandy lake.  We reached in time to get our tickets and took our seats at the very first row. We were given the programme sheet which helped us to know some information about the significance behind each performance. There were different  dancing and drumming performances, which took us through the culture of Srilanka. At the end there was fire eating and on top of it was barefoot charcoal fire walking which they dedicate to Sita of Ramayana. We didn’t realise how the one hour flew with the power packed performances of artists.  We were told that there were two or three halls where simultaneously performances goes on by different artists.

It was dark and drizzling when we came out of the hall. We walked through the sidewalk of Kandy lake to our parked vehicle and retired for the day.

Day 6 – Nuwara Eliya (Capital City of King Ravana):

After having our break fast we headed to one of the most fascinating hill stations of Srilanka, Nuwara Eliya. We saw  water falls gracefully coming down the hills, on the hilly roads towards our destination. We stopped at a hotel for a tea break from where we had a beautiful valley view and falls namely Devon falls, St. Claire falls.  Nature here was really delightful, fresh, green and clean through out our journey. By afternoon we reached “Little England” of Srilanka, Nuwara Eliya. We checked in to our Hotel, Hotel Stamford Star and after freshening up, went to see the wonderful Gregory lake.

It was almost sun set time when we went to the lake, so first we decided to take a boat ride before dark and took the private boat ride, only three of us peddling the boat, our son in centre with our life jackets on. It was very cold out there specially as we were on the lake, after half an hour of peddling, took a walk around the well lit lake garden amidst food stalls and ice cream parlours. We sat on the bench for sometime enjoying the beauty of the lake in the dusk and sparkling waters and the sun set over the lake. We came back to the hotel and after dinner, retired for the day.

Day 7 – Nuwara Eliya: 

First place of our visit today was Sita Eliya. Sita Eliya is one of the most important and holy place related to Ramayana as we know in India. It is said that this is the place where Sita was held captive by Ravan, also called as Ashoka Vatika as there still is the tree which is called Ashok Tree where Sita used to sit. This is the place where Hanuman met Sita Devi with the message of Lord Rama. We can see huge foot prints on the rocks supposed to be his foot marks!! Very scenic place with the thick forest behind the temple, river Sita flowing, exactly depicted in the epic.  There are two temples dedicated to Sri Rama Sita and one for Lord Hanuman. We enquired the place where Ravana’s palace was situated, and the guide and also the person who did pooja at the temple showed us a huge mountain on the top of which the palace was situated, which was of course as said, made of gold and used to  shine. (Here  I  recommend you to read our post, “Were Hindu Gods none other than ancient aliens”). We also learnt that he has this flying machine, by which he came to India and kidnapped queen Sita. And mythology also says Nuwara Eliya once was Ravana’s capital city, which according to Ramayana, Lord Hanuman burnt with his tail !!!  Because of this arson, many people believe that the soil of Nuwara Eliya is dark black in colour as compared to soil in surrounding parts.  Some people say this is the only temple dedicated to Sita in the world. I asked our guide what does the Srilankan legend say about Ravana, but interestingly Ravana is known to be a  Good and able ruler of Srilanka and nothing much has been said other than this.  Sri Lanka flourished under his able leadership and kidnapping Sita was his only misdeed.

At a very short distance from Sita Eliya, was our next stop Hakgala Botanical Gardens, this is the second largest botanical garden in Srilanka. There are many different parts which were very beautiful and highly recomended such as flower garden, Rock garden, Fern forest, rose garden and spice garden to mention a few. The garden is very well maintained and cool in the sunny day too. The walk takes a slight up hill some places which may be little tiring, but otherwise it is covered with trees so one can rest and continue. We could see a natural Red coloured tree, which in Buddhist belief, the next incarnation of Buddha will take below this or such similar tree. It is also believed that the next Buddha incarnation will take place in Sri Lanka, because as of date, Sri Lanka is the only truly Buddhist country in the world.  It took us around 2 or 3 hours to walk through the garden of course albeit taking breather breaks.  It was worth a visit.

It was almost noon and this was all on our intinerary today, so we left for our hotel. On our way, we saw bike racing taking place behind the Gregory lake which was one of the attractions of that day. As there was still time, Nikhil decided to take a trek on one of the hills near our hotel called Single Tree Hill of Nuwara Eliya, as this place is frequented by trekkers.  As detailed by him, the view from the top was breathtaking as the entire Nuwara Eliya town can be viewed from the top along with Gregory Lake surrounded by mountains.  The trek flowed through the tea estates. We rested for the day at our hotel.

Day 8 – Bentota:

Today  after breakfast we bid farewell to the most beautiful hill station and started to descend mountains enroute Horton Plains National Park, Peak Wilderness Sanctuary and Sinharaja Forest Reserve,  to Bentota the western beach town, 220 kms from Nuwara Eliya.  Wow, Sri Lanka has so much to offer and what a picturesque forest cover unlike any we have seen!!!  It was a long long journey down hill, amidst splendid tea gardens on  both the  sides. The road seemed never ending as we stopped twice to see two different water falls on our way, both were gorgeous in their own way. Those were the most needed stops through the curvy roads as some of our stomachs were also rumbling. The roads are good throughout Srilanka and clean at the same time. Nature was at its best, Srilanka is Tea growing country so throughout the mountainous road, we could see tea gardens very similar to Munnar in Kerala, India.  The landscape is so reminiscent of Kerala, but on a more grander scale here in Sri Lanka.

By the time we reached Bentota, it was evening, as we checked into the hotel it started to rain with thunder storms. We freshened up and spent rest of the evening watching rains from our hotel lobby, the sea food dinner consisting of red snapper, prawns and crabs was sumptuous at the hotel. The sea food was ordered from a well known Amal Restaurant.  We enjoyed our dinner amidst heavy rainfall outside, It was pouring almost till midnight. From our room we could hear the roar of the sea.

Day 9 – Bentota and Galle

Next morning, we woke up to the sunny and very clear morning as if no thunderstorm had happened the previous night. After finishing our breakfast we left to see the Turtle harchery.

It is a place where they buy eggs of turtles and keep them in sand till they hatch and safely leave them in the sea so they can survive in their natural habitat. We got a guided tour of the place where the guide explained to us the varieties of turtles. For the first time I came to know the difference between tortoise and turtle. In Srilanka we can see 5 of the 7 species of turtles in the world. The guide showed us the different varieties in the small ponds or tanks maintained specially to show to the visitors and tourists. We could hold and click pictures with the small and big ones too. The guide said that turtles live up to 300 to 350 years !! There was one huge turtle around 80 years which had lost one of its wings and could not survive in the ocean, so the hatchery takes care of the turtle. Our son really enjoyed seeing those small baby turtles like him in the tanks.  Then off we were on backwater safari.

Every entry fee in Srilanka is costly compared to India. So don’t compare, just enjoy the beauty of the place you are visiting else you will miss good places. So are the fees for the mangrove cave river safari. The boat ride or safari as they say took us through the mangrove tree shadows, then they showed us where the river met the ocean, an abandoned temple in the midst of the river. The main attraction was the fish foot massage. Partitions and cubicles are made on one side of the river and there are hundreds of small orange coloured fishes kept in each cubicle. We have to immerse our bare feet in these waters and the orange fish will eat the dead skin off your feet. It was a weird kind of experience though. Initially reluctant as the fish may bite we slowly put our feet in the water and these fish with their tiny soft teeth clear the skin. It was a very tickling experience sitting there in the sun and allowing fish to eat our dead skin. But the fact is we enjoyed it and our feets looked so clean like pedicured in a salon!! The feeling is like a group of people are cleaning our feet with a hard toothbrushes!

Next point on the safari is cinammon spice garden were we can see how the cinnamon is processed and we can buy cinnamon, cinamon powder at a “low cost”. After going through the process we went through the remaining part of the cruise watching the birds fly, crossing the overhead bridge which was really low that we have to completely bend else we may get hurt, watching blue blue water all the way. The safari was about one and a half hours. Altogether it was a exhilarating experience.

After this we went to Galle (pronounced as Gaul), cricket lovers must have heard this name as this houses one of the Cricket stadiums of Srilanka.

There is a small Tsunami museum on the main road from Bentota to Galle. It is a must visit as Srilanka was one of the worst hit nation by Tsunami in December 2004. This museum is very near to the Tsunami Memorial. It is housed in a small hut which was also hit by tsunami but the owner survived as they were not living there at that time. It has loads of pictures taken by people and newspaper cuttings and pictures of people missing and paintings by children whose fate changed forever on that worst day. I really could not go through everything as my eyes got moist and  i decided to come out of there praying in mind for those who survived and for those who are still in the hope to find their beloved. The next was the Tsunami memorial built at the very place where a train with 1000 people on board swept away, and the engine ended up 5 kms inland.  Such was the impact!!  It was the 10th anniversary on 26th December 2014, just 3-4 days from our visit.

Through out our way to Galle we could see Tsunami  ruined houses, buildings some under repair, some abandoned without owners and some rebuilt. We reached Galle in the afternoon.

Galle is a very beautiful city near the southwestern tip of Srilanka. Covered by ocean at all sides and  the main attraction of the city is the Galle Fort. Built by Dutch in the beginning of the year 1660, most part is covered by ocean on three sides. In the Fort, there is also a great little café called The Pedler’s Inn on Pedler Street. The milkshakes are a must for a hot day, and the sandwiches are pretty good, too!. We just loitered around the place through the small and clean roads. There are administrative offices, courts, many boutique shops in the complex. There is a light house, a  mosque and a beautiful church in the premises of the old fort. We climbed the fort to witness the sun set  in the Indian ocean and other side was the Galle International Cricket Stadium. There’s also a maritime museum but it was closed for the day.  Really beautiful city in its literal meaning, so clean and well maintained.

After watching the sun set and roaming through the streets watching different antique and boutique shops, we left to Bentota and retired for the day.

Day 10 – Colombo: 

Today was our last day in Sri Lanka, in Colombo.

Trivia:  What is the Capital City of Sri Lanka? Colombo? No!! It is Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte (or in short, Kotte) which is a suburb situated within Colombo.

We left Bentota after breakfast. On our way we stopped at Kalutara, one of the main cities of Srilanka. On reaching Kalutara we could see a huge Stupa from a distance. Our guide took us to the place which is called Kalutara Bodhiya. This is located next to river Kaluganga. This place is worshipped by Buddhist. On one side is the Bodhi tree under which there are statues of Buddha in different postures. People were worshipping, chanting and offering sweets to the god. At another side is the Tagoba, the big white stupa or Pagoda. Speciality of this stupa is that we can actually walk in side it and there is one more small stupa under the huge one and there are lot of pictures depicting the life of Buddha and also of his different incarnations. A very calm and peaceful place and a must visit.

After spending some time inside the temple we left for Colombo. Colombo is the commercial capital and the largest city of Srilanka. The first place we stopped was Galle Face Green. On our way along the coast, we saw the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse’s official residence, few embassies including Indian and US embassy. Galle Face Green reminds us of the Queens necklace Marine Drive Mumbai. It is a 5 hectre ribbon strip of land between Galle Road and Indian ocean, now it is the largest open space in Colombo. This is a popular place for outdoor activities with small eatery stalls beside the roads. Well maintained lawn and benches are available to sit and relax watching the ocean. It was afternoon and sun was burning over our heads, so we just took a quick walk near the ocean and some pictures and went to the vehicle for the next city tour.

Next to the Galle Face Green, we can see the harbour of Colombo. Heavy serious construction work aided by Chinese and Koreans (South…not North ;-)) was under progress. You could see cranes and other buildings equipments on sky scrapers under construction.  On the way we saw the old Parliament, in front of which were the statues of the freedom fighter of Sri Lanka. Next was the Twin Towers of World Trade Centre of Sri Lanka, the tallest building in the country. The 32 floor high glass covered buildings were looking outstanding reflecting the sun rays. We could not stop anywhere here as there is no permission, so we saw everything from our slow moving vehicle and took photos wherever we could. Then through the city we saw a beautiful garden, a white building, the Town Hall building which looks like White House of USA.

We stopped at a famous and beautiful Buddhist temple in the island of Beira lake. Its a Pagoda style of construction, A wooden bridge takes us to the shrine. Inside of the temple was peaceful and no visitiors when we went there. Outside the temple there are many statutes of Buddhas in His various incarnations. It started to drizzle by now and the cold breeze was blowing from the lake. The lake is quite huge and very clean too.

Actually by this time it was late afternoon and we went to a hotel situated near the floating market or in the centre of the lake. The rains too started and after having our food we had nothing to do much so we retired for the day as the next day we were leaving to another of our dream destination “The Maldives”.

For snapshots of our Sri Lanka Tour, check this Facebook public link

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10205396868936680.1073741842.1098111165&type=1&l=e77d9c06d7

Some quick observations about Sri Lanka:

  1. Earlier plagued by LTTE terrorism, then wiped out entirely by Sri Lankan armed forces, the country is now safe for tourism except as informed to us, some areas in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, including some parts of Jaffna and Trincomalee, which are cordoned off by the Army due to risk of landmines planted by the LTTE till they are cleared off!!
  2. We noticed that we recognized the Hindi film melodies of the Sinhala songs playing on taxi radios and noticed that Sri Lankan politicians are as un-photogenic and as poster-hungry as ours, and discover that the Tata and Airtel and Reliance (as well as Ariel and Colgate and Lux) brands are as visibly ubiquitous as in India.
  3. At the time of our visit to Sri Lanka, the forex rate was 1 INR = 2.17 SLR.  But trust me Sri Lanka is a very expensive destination lest you intend to go backpacking.  At least double the rates we pay in India for things.  Ex:  A 1 ltr. bottle of mineral water in India costs INR 15 but in Sri Lanka, it costs INR 36 (SLR 75).  No wonder, the per capita income of a Sri Lankan is almost double that of an Indian.  An average one time meal for a person costs about INR 1,000 in Sri Lanka.  But that may also depend on which hotels you visit, I guess.  So plan well in advance.
  4. Though a small island, Sri Lanka has varied climate throughout the provinces.  It may be raining in Central Province but there may be bright sunshine on the Western Province.  So plan in advance, which places you want to visit to get good climate.

How is Sri Lanka different from India:

The most common myth is that Sri Lanka is an extended India.  While it is true in some sense, as an Indian in Sri Lanka will not feel disoriented, but following are the differences we came across:

  1. The country has high literacy rates and excellent health coupled with excellent public services for health and education.
  2. First of all (and dearest to my own heart) is the ease and joy with which women traverse public spaces.  Even in the densest crowds, there is adequate space for women.  Also women smile pleasantly at strangers, male strangers included, as my dear husband happily discovers.
  3. Public places are unreasonably clean.  No plastic bags and household garbage strewn on the roads, no paan spit (though I think Sri Lankans don’t eat paan), no dogs, pigs and other rodents in sight
  4. There are no signs of stark poverty anywhere, no rampant beggars, which is still a mystery to me.  May be that there is income equality in Sri Lanka, meaning there is no extreme poverty nor extremely rich people whereas in India, that gap is huge.
  5. Sri Lankan cuisine centers around boiled or steamed rice served with a curry of fish, chicken, beef, mutton or goat, along with other curries made with vegetables, lentils or fruit.  Common sights of food include Kottu, Hoppers, String Hoppers similar to Appam and Idiyappam in India.  It will get a little being used to for the Indian taste buds to acquaint with the Sri Lankan Masala, but once you get acquainted, you will start liking it.  And use of pepper instead of chilli is evident.

Maldives

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Day 11 to Day 14 – Vilamendhoo Island in The Maldives:

We left Srilanka to Maldives. It was a emotional farewell to the beautiful island nation which was very warm to us all these days. Good natured people, sumptuous food and scenic nature and in all, a clean disciplined country. We enjoyed every bit of our stay here.

After bidding adieu to Surendra, our co-ordinator, guide, friend and Uncle to our son, we left to our another dream destination Maldives. It was an Hour flight to Male from Colombo over the Indian Ocean.

By 3 pm, we reached the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, Male. Male the capital of Island nation Maldives. Maldives consists of more than 1000 islands of which around 200 are inhabitated and predominantly Muslim country. Since a Muslim country, there are some restrictions if you are visiting local towns like dressing moderately, restriction on liquor etc.  In the resorts, there are no restrictions at all however, except dressing moderately at supper time.  The Male airport was on one of the small islands. Maldives is called as “the tropical paradise” for reasons. Its beauty is none like other. Maldives is a tropical country with separated islands, which are separated by sea. Each island is surrounded by stunning white sandy beaches. It is a wonderful experience to visit and explore the beauty of the islands.

The sea covers about 99% of the Maldives and it is where most attractive things lie in. The natural beauty lies in the Maldivian sea beats no other. There are over five thousand coral reefs and plenty of reef fish, corals, marine mammals, and so many other marine lives. And hence a divers paradise.

It was like a Alice in wonderland experience. The airport is very small and has some unique feel about it. After passing through the required immigrations check, when we came out it was a different world together. There were stalls by island resorts outside the airport. Initially it took some time to understand how to proceed. We enquired at one of the counters and came to know about our resort stall. When we reported there, the concerned co-ordinator took us to the Trans Maldivian airline, the largest operators of Sea planes in the world. Our sea plane would take us from Male to Vilamendhoo Island Resort which is about 70 nautical miles away from Male.  This was going to be an experience!! Our luggage was checked in and we were issued our boarding passes. A bus, yes an empty bus with only three of us took us through a 5 minute ride to the Sea plane terminal. A island with an airport. After reaching the terminus, a beautiful Maldivian lady welcomed us and escorted us to a lounge and as there was still an hour to board the plane we waited there. The air-conditioned lounge was beautifully furnished. We were offered complimentary beverages cold drinks, tea, coffee anything of our choice. Unlimited too.  We could watch from the lounge, sea planes taking off and landing and the crystal clear blue and green sea waters and we were really excited and anxiously waiting to board one.

At the prescribed time, the lady escorted us to the terminal, where our pilot welcomed us on board. The sea plane was so small with only 15 passenger seats and hardly 5 ft high inside the cabin that we could not even stand straight. We saw our luggage was already on board behind the seats. We were altogether 12 passengers of different nationalities, viz: Nigerians, Chinese, Europeans on the plane with two pilots and one cabin staff. At 4.15 pm we took off to our destination. Once we took off it was a out of the world experience, In the midst of loud noise of the plane we can see below blue and green waters, islands, lagoons and many speed boats navigating the sea. We could see many island resorts situated below. It was an amazingly unique experience altogether.  Traveling in a sea plane and watching the beautiful islands from the window is the most wonderful experience you could ever have. All the tourists inside the plane were scrambling to get great snaps from the planes windows.  Islands are formed in a way that makes a round which is called as an atoll. When you see them from sea plane view, it will look like a chain of pearls.

  After almost half an hour flight, the plane landed on the sea near our resort and onto a boat already waiting for us. Two beautiful Chinese girls welcomed us on to the boat. Coming out of the plane which is floating mid sea and crossing  a wooden barge to climb the boat was a experience i can not forget all of my life. That too carrying my son. The staff is very helpful and caring, they hold your hands and let you safely in the boat.  The staff transferred our luggage to the boat, everything happens so smooth, that one need not worry about anything at all. I was simply in awe of everything happening around me.

The boat ride of around 5 minutes took us to the dream destination The VilaMendhoo Resort and Spa. It is like one island one resort in Maldives. The resort has everything and is well stuffed for hundreds of guests.  There must be about 100 villas in the island and all were full.  But there was no chaos and everything seemed orderly.  We were welcomed at the VilaMendhoo island with the passion fruit welcome drink, and a staff explained us everything about the island, the dos and donts and the activities we can take up etc. Then we headed to our Beach bunglow which was going to be our home for next 4 days.

The island had 3 different kinds of rooms the Beach villas, Jaccuzi Villas and Water Villas, Ours was Beach Villa which was hardly 50 feet from the sea.  We checked in to the very beautiful room which had wooden interiors. Simple and elegant furniure. With in room bar and snacks and half roof bathroom. After freshening up, we sat on the portico and it was so silent as if only three of us on the island. At 8 pm, we went to the buffet area and oh my god, there were more than 500 people in there in the dining. We could see people from all over the world here, of every caste, skin, creed, religion, country, ethnicity. So was the food platter… for everyone’s taste buds… Food was full of different varieties, types and over all very authentic in each type and delicious. I have never see such an elaborate buffet. Very nicely organised and attractive tables. Everything is planned here, the table too with our room number already written on it. So that was going to be our table for the next 4 days!  After having a sumptuous dinner we retired for the day.

We woke up to the noise of rain the next morning. The weather report  sometimes is very accurate, I thought. It rained till noon and sea was clear after that. We walked the sea shore, bathed to our hearts extent in to the green coral sea, with various colored fish including baby sharks swimming beneath our feet. The Maldives is famous for its coral islands which extend to some feet near the shore. The waves here are very small like those of a calm river and  the sea is very calm at the shore. Its green and crystal clear with white sands.   Never have I seen such clear waters!!  The shadow of a boat (called “Dhoni” in Maldives) could be clearly seen on the sand beneath the sea.  You get a feeling that the boat is flying!!

The resort also has a Swimming pool, play area , a shop with clothes, jewellery, gift items etc. There is also a restaurant called Asian Wok where the food is prepared and served on special request or order. This is other than the restaurant where buffet service and cocktails is rendered. The resort also has a spa called Duniye spa. We had a complimentary spa treatment which was rejuvenating.

The resort also hosts different activities like one day excursions to nearby islands, sun set point etc. The islands of Maldives are very famous for their deep sea diving and snorkeling. As we both are non swimmers and also were not equipped with snorkeling gear, we decided not to venture the sea and enjoy the water from shore. We also learned, to avoid renting snorkeling gear as it is akin to renting a toothbrush!  And the new gear costs about $ 120 on the island.  So bring your own gear for water activities.

We were in VilaMendhoo resort for 4 days and all we did was enjoying the water, sun bathing on the beach beds, walking the beach, food, spa treatment, soaking in the natural display of beauty beyond comprehension and sleep. Every day brought us different hues of water and sky.  If nature is an artist, then I feel Maldives is a canvas!!

Almost all the islands in Maldives are surrounded by beautiful pure white sandy beaches. Even if you have nothing else to do, I am sure you won’t get bored, because we sure didn’t, walking in the soft white sandy beaches and leaving your foot prints on.

Everything in resorts is very expensive.  A one and half litre water bottle costs $ 4.50 and you have to live with it, because you can’t live without it.  A cocktail costs minimum $ 10, which you can live without ….perhaps.  The round trip sea plane transfers costs about $ 350 per person.  So be prepared to splurge in the Maldives.  If you really are on a budget but want to visit Maldives, there are some B&B home stays you can enjoy though not as luxurious.  But hey! You can get the real taste of Maldivian way of life only in budget home stays.  Budget booking can also be done on AirBnB.

After soaking in the beauty of Maldives, we returned to India viz. Male to Colombo to Bangalore. The return journey via boat to Male airport was meticulously planned by the resort and we had nothing to worry about.

Maldives is a top destination for “must-visit-before-you-die” and has always been included in top “All Inclusive Plan” resorts around the world by many top travel sites.

A truly “deserted island paradise”!!!

For snapshots of Maldives, check the following Facebook public link

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10205396909257688.1073741843.1098111165&type=1&l=d32d51964e

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Travel

Himachal and Spiti

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June is the monsoon season all over the south and Nikhil was searching for a destination which will give a break from hectic work schedule and the rains. So he came up with the idea of visiting Spiti Valley. When I heard the name I was excited as finally I will be using my passport for its actual purpose of travel and not as an identity proof. And as this will be our first foreign tour!!! So I asked Nikhil which country is it in?? I can still remember the look on Nikhil’s face!! He just told me to Google it and left for office.

When I searched the name in the internet I found this place in my very  own country. Though disappointed by missing a foreign tour, I went through the pictures and write ups on this place in Himachal and instantly fell in love with it.  And so off we were on our adventure.  Our tour follows:

Shimla is 7 to 8 hours journey from New Delhi and we took a Volvo bus run by Himachal Tourism from Delhi. Though we were little hesitant about this bus journey we found it comfortable and were ready to enjoy Shimla the next morning.

Day One – Shimla:

Shimla the Capital of Himachal Pradesh is often termed as “Queen of Hills.”  It is located in North West Himalayas at an altitude of about 2200 meters. The weather here was a mixture of sunshine and clouds. We started our day with the visit to Christ Church which was very near to the hotel we stayed. This is said to be the second oldest Church in Northern India. We spent some time looking at the Majestic architecture and left for our next place of the day called Naldehra Golf course. Naldehra is about 22 kms from Shimla city. Here before we could know what is happening we were made to sit on the Horse back to have a look at the Golf course. It was the first ever time I ever rode on a horse back. Initially it felt little scary but, soon we felt like Maharaja and Maharani on the horses. It was an hour and a half ride through the lush green golf course. We stopped at a Nag Mandir built in the greenery. On our way we enjoyed the view of Pine trees and valleys and a far off view of river Sutlej.

After spending quiet a lot of time on horse back we were hungry and had a nice food at a road side hotel and started for our next stop at Kufri.

Kufri is situated 16 kms from Shimla city. Being located at the highest point it receives the first snow fall of Shimla District. There is a Fun park situated here and we came to know that the only way we can reach there is by Horse riding. So again we were on horseback on our way to The Fun Park, The so called road which leads to the park is completely covered with mud and stones. We came to know that about 1100 horses work here operated by Himachal Tourism. These are trained horses and were taking us through the serpentine roads facing deep fall at one side following their counterparts without disturbing the line. After an hour of ride we finally reached our destination.  The Fun parks houses a small garden, a skiing zone (for winters) and few valley view points. At the time we reached there it started to drizzle and everything around was covered by fog. So we could not see much there. There were many Yaks, the King of snow here. Though these are used only for photo purpose, the animal looked very interesting and friendly too. I too jumped on one to have my photo. After spending some time around in Kufri, we decided to go back. Again on horseback. Finally after about 45 minutes we were back to our car and headed to the place called Lalit Cafe where the Shimla Agreement was discussed between Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. It houses a Cafe and a garden. By this time the sky was completely covered by clouds and we decided to leave for Shimla.

On our way back we stopped to see the Green valley of Shimla. Our guide said that the valley is spread almost 25 kms and full of Pine trees. The valley was covered by fog and only we could see is the white foggy valley in place of Green!!

At the time we entered Shimla it was evening and it had started to rain and we decided to retire for the day.

Day Two – Manali:

The second day of our tour was to go to Manali. Manali is 360 kms from Shimla another beautiful Hill station. It was a day long journey so we packed as early as possible and left for our next destination.

Enroute Manali: The weather was perfect with no signs of rains though sometimes it was cloudy enough to hide the mountains from our view. The first stop was at Sundar Lake. A beautiful lake just outside the beautiful town Sundarnagar near Mandi. Lake is surrounded by huge mountains and a good place to stop on the long journey.

The next stop was Pandoh Hydel project on river Beas. We could hear the roaring of the river from a distance where the dam is constructed. We stopped here for some time to see the water flowing in its full force on the other side of the dam. For Manali, we have to cross the bridge built over the dam. Fully surrounded by mountains with huge trees, this place is a must stop.

The next stop was at Kullu where we did river rafting in the River Beas. It was a first time experience for both of us. Little nervous we climbed the boat in the jackets provided by the organiser. Initially it felt little scary as both of us are non swimmers but, it was safe and we enjoyed every bit of 7 km long rafting in the ice cold waters of Beas.

After visiting the famous shawl factory of Kullu (Caveat Emptor – Don’t fall for the Chingu scheme), we finally reached our hotel at Manali in late evening.

Day Three – Manali:

Vashishta Temple: Our first stop in Manali was the Vashistha Temple in village Vashishta situated 3 kms from Manali. The temple is believed to be  4,000-year-old temple dedicated to sage Vashisht.
The temple is also famous for its hot sulphur springs. According to legend, Lakshmana who visited this ashram of Vashisht found that his guru had to go far off for his bath.  He shot an arrow at this place and hot water sprang out. Shower-fitted Turkish style bathrooms have made the spring a popular spot used mostly by locals and was dirty.
Inside the temple there is a black stone image of the Rishi, clad in dhoti. On the left side of the spring, there is a Rama temple in which the idols of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana have been installed.

Hadimba/ Hidimba Devi Temple: After spending some time at the Vashishta temple and savouring the beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we left for Hadimba Temple.  This  temple is located in middle of the forest Dhungiri Van Vihar amidst the huge Deodhar Trees. The temple was built in 1553 and dedicated to Hadimba Rakshashi of Mahabharat as she ruled these mountains.  The temple is four storeyed and has a  Pagoda styled architecture.  Spending sometime amidst the huge Deodhars, our next stop was The Clubhouse.

 

Club House: As far as I am concerned it is just a modern tourist attraction and nothing else. It had some water sports like river crossing, a boating and few game centres. We had a quick look around and  left for the Tibetian Monastery.

 

Tibetan Monastery: We visited the Tibetan Monastery near Tibetan Market. A beautiful statue of Bhagvan Buddha in the centre is truly divine. The calm and quiet surroundings of the monastery were a welcome change amidst the crowded areas we went earlier.

We just strolled down the Tibetian market and Mall Road of  Manali for  some time and retired for the day as, the next morning we had to leave for our Main attraction of this tour, Spiti Valley.

Spiti Valley – The Hidden Paradise

As per our drivers request, we decided to leave hotel as early as 3 am the next day to reach Kaza by 3 pm. The hurdle for the trip was Rohtang Pass as the day before, there was a Landslide and the traffic was still to be cleared. We reached Rohtang pass at about 5 am and before we could reach, we saw the long line of vehicles. So here we were about 7 kms from main Zero Point of Rohtang Pass stuck in a Traffic Jam!! The morning was a real beauty, Green valleys, huge mountains, snow capped peaks, rivers and the sun playing hide and seek with the clouds. The nature was at its Best here. At this point we were really happy being stuck in a traffic jam as otherwise we could not have enjoyed this beauty!!

3 hours went on and there was no sign of our Sumo moving an inch. We were at a single point all three hours and slowly the cars started moving. Oh, that’s great we will reach Kaza in time!! But, what happened next was unbelievable. The traffic was so slow due to a major landslide that it took us full 8 hours to Pass The Great Rohtang Pass!! Crossing the Landslide zone was a nightmare. The road was muddy and our driver had to struggle controlling the vehicle. The police were allowing one vehicle at a time to cross the particular landslide zone. And above all rain had started and curtailing our speed too. Muddy slippery road with steep valley on one side and huge mountain wall on the other. It was most scary road I have ever travelled which made me remember all 3  crore Gods!! Due to snow fall in winters Rohtang is closed for 6 months in a year. And to clear the snow the big bulldozers are used because of which roads are always in bad condition. Even huge military vehicles have to cross this very road to transport ration and ammunition to the base in Ladakh.

Finally we reached Gramphu village at around 2.30 and stopped for lunch. From this village the road splits to Spiti to the east and Leh in the west. The view though fully covered with clouds was awesome!! After having a quick meal of Hot Maggie Noodles, we turned right to our destination Spiti Valley.

Spiti valley too don’t have proper tar roads but, after travelling the roads of Rohtang we found this uneven road as Express Highway!! No traffic and No rains too !! The mountains were so huge with bushes and many water falls falling from the top and deep valley where the River Chandra was flowing in full force. Suddenly the view changed as if by waving a magic wand, enter the most desolate place.  No traffic, no human beings at all in sight.  A view of harsh beauty of Mother Nature. Slowly as we proceeded into the valley I thought we were in completely alien land. We were crossing nalas (water fall from glaciers) the road was both sides covered with huge rocks, small bushes of colourfull flowers and River Chandra  down below. Soon cold wind started blowing and we wore our jackets.

We were enjoying the land so much that we did not even realise that we are at Baatal which is a base camp for the Chandrataal trekking. Though our first stay was supposed to be at Kaza (which is the headquarters of Spiti),we had to stay at Baatal due to traffic at Rohtang. And what a place it was. Amidst the great Himalayas, small Dhaba called Chandra Dhaba run by a Buddhist couple was a great choice of stay we ever did. We rented a tent from the couple who were very friendly and caring. After having a hot mint tea and some chit chat with them, we decided to take rest. The cold wind had started to blow, we really needed to cover ourselves for the night. As the night began, the wind took its toll on us. It was almost 1 degree or low at that time.  We had a dinner of the most delicious Roti and daal and retired for the day.  We both had severe headache due to altitude and as this was known to us, we had purchased “Diamox” tablet at Manali which proved to be a lifesaver.

Day One in Spiti:

We woke up to the bright sunshine falling through the small window of our tent and we just peeked out of the window. Alas, the scene outside was breath-taking. We literally ran out of the tent to see the Great Himalaya which was hidden behind thick clouds the earlier day. The sky was clean blue the wind had stopped and the morning was really pleasant. We just sat in the dhabha with our hot mint tea and savoured the beauty of the place. The view is still crystal clear in front of my eyes even today!!

After finishing our breakfast of Hot Parathas, we moved towards our next destination Kaza.  En route  Kaza we crossed the highest place of Spiti and one of the main passes of India called Kunzum La. There is Kunzum La Devi temple here. Every vehicle passing through Kunzumla stops here to take darshan of Kunzumla Devi and take her blessings. We too stopped here for a while. Surrounded by snow pack mountains and small flowery bushes, this place is amazingly beautiful.

After Kunzum La, the next brief stop was Lohsar where there is a check post to enter the Spiti valley. Lohsar houses few guest houses for tourists. A beautiful town set up amidst the greenery of the green peas farms which is the main commercial crop of this valley also.

Every turn in Spiti has a different view to showcase. We were simply crossing huge mountains with rocks of different colours and textures. Each one has its own unique feature and grandeur. At around 2 o’clock in the afternoon we reached the main and biggest city of the Spiti valley Kaza which is a beautiful town situated in a valley surrounded by monstrous mountains. We checked into our hotel Snow Lion, which is one of the famous hotels of Kaza. After having lunch and taking some rest we decided to visit the First Monastery of our itinerary, The Kee Monastery.

Kee monastery or Gompa as it is called in local Spitian language is situated around 10 kms from Kaza and is on top of a hill. Like bells in Hindu temples, the monastery has prayer bells too, which rings when rotated clock wise. The serene and calm environment of the gompa was a welcome after a long drive from Baatal. A monk or Lama escorted us through the monastery and explained us about the monastery. This monastery is visited by Dalai Lama. There are ancient Buddhist scriptures preserved here. After sipping the aromatic tea offered by the monks and spending some time around the gompa, we left for the next stop Kibber village.

Kibber is situated about 4,500 meters above sea level and said to be the highest electrified and motorable village in the world. The view from the village and of the village was just outstanding. A small village with similar looking houses also has a couple of guest houses for tourists visiting here. We took an evening stroll on the roads of the highest village amongst the kids playing on the roads before leaving to Kaza.

Kaza houses all the government departments for the Lahaul and Spiti district, It has a hospital, school, market place, ATM and the only Petrol Pump in the district. The population must be around 600.

Day Two in Spiti:

After having breakfast we left for Langza and Komic villages. This village is situated at the base of huge mountains and amidst greenery of the fields. There are two villages Upper Langza and Lower langza. Langza has an Huge statue of Bhagwan Buddha. The place is very picturesque. It was the most bluest Azure sky ever seen in my life with different shades of blue.  All around you are the mountains some green, some rugged hiding behind them are the snow capped mountains. It was windy and cold in the mid-morning too. After spending some time in the serene environment, we left for Komic.

We decided to take a small trek / walk from Langza to Komic with our guide  Tashi escorting us through the mountains.  Though the trek was of only around 2 kms it took us almost 2 hours to reach. The weather was a mixture of bright sunshine accompanied with cold wind. Though I am not fond of trekking I enjoyed it and actually it was not that tough too except few steep descends and ascends. On our way we came across the village Hikkam. Every village in Spiti is set up in a lovely background and this was not an exception. As we went up the hill we noticed a square built with stones and flag on it and our guide told us that it is called La which marks the boundary of villages i. e. beginning of one village and the end of another. So different isn’t it?  Finally we reached the road which leads to Komic Monastery. We were out of breath with no energy to walk a step further, and literally sitting on the side of the road to get ourselves to normal. Looking at our tired smiles towards them, the monks walking there took pity on us and offered us lunch at their place.

The food was simple but, delicious consisting of Daal, chawal, sabzi and pickle and a speciality food of Spiti called Timuk made with Atta or wheat flour. This was accompanied with the Namkeen chay (Buttered Tea) another speciality found in Spiti. We were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the lama called Nyima who served us this mouth-watering lunch at his humble abode in the monastery.

After getting the much needed energy we went to see the Gompa. This too is a very old monastery and was peaceful for the mind. Spending some time in the prayer hall we decided to move back to Kaza.

In the evening we visited the Kaza monastery. This monastery was built in the year 2009 and inaugurated by Dalai Lama. Being new the architecture is so beautiful with vibrant colours painted in and out of the place, not leaving even the ceilings. The huge prayer hall was decorated with Prayer flags consisting of Blue, Yellow, White, Red and Green colours each colour having its own importance and meaning.

In  every monastery we can see the Prayer flags, Thankas – the paintings on clothes,of Buddha, seating for Lamas at the time of prayers, oil lamps, offerings to the God by devotees, the Buddhist scriptures amongst the many, apart from the Huge statues of Bhagwan Buddha,

We spent some time here and decided to retire for the day.

Day Three in Spiti:

Our itinerary for today was Dhangkar Monastery and Tabo. We checked out of the hotel as our next stay was in Tabo another main city of Lahaul and Spiti District.  So we were on our way to Dhangkar which houses an Old and a new monastery. In entire Spiti, vehicles here cannot speed more than 10 to 15 km per hour due to the uphills and dirt roads and the U pin curves. But, this does not make the journey boring at all. Every next turn here has something new to offer. The river Spiti silently accompanies all through the journey in the deep valley below and the mountains make you feel so small in front Mother Nature.

It took us about 2 hours to reach Dhangkar (about 30 kms). First we visited the old monastery which is said to be a thousand year old and certified as heritage building by UNESCO. Built with mud and stones, inside of the Gompa is serene and calm. There is a cave inside the monastery where monks used to sit for meditation for days together. We could see the beautiful village Dhangkar from atop the Gompa.  We paid homage to Lord Buddha and meditated in the peace.  After the meditation, we were refreshed.  From atop the Monastery, one can see the beautiful confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers.

We next went to see the New Dhangkar gompa. This too like Kaza is painted with vibrant colours and paintings. The monks here too offered us hot tea and biscuits in the lavish sitting room of the New Gompa. After capturing the surrounding views we decided to leave for our next stay Tabo.

Dhangkar has a Lake situated in the other side of the mountains, which we needed to climb  ourselves. Looking at the climb we decided unanimously to skip the lake for this tour and visit it in our next. Yes, we are going to Spiti again as it is a place we fell in Love with.

Passing through many small villages some having a population of 10 to 15 we reached Tabo, where we had a Home Stay. Home stay is actually living in the house of locals and sharing the home made food and getting to know the local culture from close quarters.  And every town in Spiti offers home stays.

The home we stayed was though has the local touch was newly built and modern. The host gave us a warm welcome. We decided to take rest for some time before going for Dinner.

Dinner was a local delight called Thentuk. Pieces of wheat boiled in vegetable curry. This is a staple food of the locals. The meal was sumptuous and we met a couple from Austria and got a chance to have some talk with them before retiring for the day.  The Austrian couple had been to Spiti for doing research on the fossils found in Spiti.  Millions of years ago, there was a huge ocean before the Himalayas were born.  When the Indian mainland separated from Africa and collided into Asia, the sea disappeared and the Himalayas were born.  Due to this, the sea dried up and the sea animals were fossilised.  When you go to Spiti, ask anyone to show you “Spitian Shells” and you will be shown these fossils as there are millions of them, which are older than the Himalayas themselves!!!  We saw an interesting specimen of such fossil preserved by Sonam, the home stay owner.  Amazing!!

Day Four in Spiti:

We started our day with a visit to the Tabo Monastery which is exactly 1014 years old. Yes, completed its 1000 years in the year 1996. Said to be built by Angels in one night (“Aliens” as Nikhil says) this is a very big and well maintained place looking at its age. Every prayer hall has old paintings and statues. Many Stupas made of Mud are around the Gompa in its premises. This has many small prayer halls to see each decorated with age old paintings. It took more than an hour to see all the small prayer halls here.

Then we proceeded to see the New Tabo monastery which is built recently. The Stupa outside the monastery was one of the most beautiful stupas ever seen. Very beautifully painted with nice bright colours which attract one instantly amidst the landscape, mindblowing!!!

The next place today was Mudh in Pin Valley the greenest place of Spiti and gets highest snow fall during winters. On our way we visited Kungri Monastery where we witnessed the Pooja performed by Lamas. It was an out of the world experience. The chanting of mantras or Buddist scriptures and sound of the bells, the smell of the incense sticks, the diyas everything was so divine. We  sat through the prayer and felt connected to The Almighty in such an amazing place.

The surrounding of the Kungri monastry too was exceptionally beautiful.

Next we proceeded towards Mudh. Passing many small, beautifully set up villages we reached Mudh. Today our stay was at a Guest house. The room was nice, clean and decent with a common Bathroom.

The evening view of the mountains was awesome. The sun was shining over the peeks of snow-capped mountains, there was greenery everywhere. We took a walk through the village up to a glacier nearby. The glaciers melt and feed the rivers.  Though from far, the glacier look small they are humongous.

After spending time there, we decided to come back to the guest house and retire for the day.

Day Five in Spiti:

The view in front of us was mesmerising. The colours of nature were shining in the sunshine, the blue sky, the Snow Mountains, the glaciers, the greenery and the sun. What else one would want? True, that you need not to be a good photographer if you come here. Every shot you take here is picture perfect. We had our morning tea and breakfast watching this spectacular view. We witnessed the all famous Bara Shigri Glacier which is the largest glacier in the district. This being our last day of tour both of us were not ready to leave early. But, we had to as we were to reach Kaza after visiting last monastery in our itinerary called Lallung.

Spending as much time possible and taking in all the pureness of nature within, we left for Lallung. It was a perfect day. Throughout we could see the crystal clear sky in the background of The Great Himalayas. There may not be a single spot where we didn’t stop our vehicle to savour the beauty. We stopped at the fields, river bridges, villages everywhere to feel the nature.

Finally we reached Lalung Monastery. We left the green mountains slowly as we neared Lalung. Here the landscape is again different with rugged, sandy, snow-capped mountains.

Local legends say that Lalung was built by Angels in one night. The Angels left suddenly as an old local lady saw them working in the dawn. Otherwise this monastery would have been the largest one. Entirely built by mud this houses the oldest paintings and sculptures painted with Gold. There are no lights allowed inside the gompa as bright lights can damage the colours of the art here.

On our way we saw a village called Demul situated between two giant mountains. What a place it was!! We came back to Kaza our next stay to witness the Birth Day celebrations of Dalai Lama on 6th of July. Our guide Tashi and driver  Angdui told us that there are going to be many cultural programmes where monks from all the monasteries perform. We decided to stay and watch the program as this will be an icing on the cake!!

Day Six in Spiti:

Next day morning we could see the festive environment in the Kaza Gompa from our hotel balcony. We hurriedly got ready so that we can catch a good seat to sit and watch the programmes. But, the procession of the monastery started at around 10 with  the Photo of the Dalai Lama kept in a Doli like thing carried by four people with the various musical instruments playing in front of the procession and chanting of Buddhist mantras started. The procession entered the market of Kaza town and we too like true Buddhist followers followed the procession. It was altogether a different experience and we came to see the entire Kaza town while moving with the procession. After the procession, an hour and a half programme initiated with the prayer of Gurus from all the monasteries and welcome speech and then the welcome song in the Kaza Monastery. After few other entertainment programmes from school children finally the main attraction of the day started with the monks from Tabo monastery performing a traditional dance. Wow, The monks  were wearing extravagant vibrant dresses with hats and sword in hand. The dance moves were so peculiar and elegant. It was a feast for eyes. We enjoyed it to the fullest. The music, the dress, the steps and the way they performed mesmerised everyone for about 15 -20 minutes. It was disappointing for us  that only one team of monks performed that day due to some reason.

Lunch was served to everyone present on the occasion (free of course).  For the first time in our stay, we saw so many Spitians at a time, adorned in their best dresses. It was festival for all of them. We got an opportunity (Special Honour) to have the delicious meal with the Lamas at their dining place. Great experience!!

We had an out of the world experience in Spiti. The people are peace loving and very friendly. Far away from commercial tourism, this place was a great pleasure to be in. The culture, the language, food everything here has its unique feel. Even strangers greet you saying Jule (Hello in Spiti) with a friendly smile.

We dearly miss visiting the Chandertaal Lake, the most beautiful lake in the world.  The road to the lake was still not cleared up and involved a 14 km hectic trek for which we didn’t have time.
If you really want to take a holiday, come to Spiti, because there is no mobile coverage except BSNL and hence no calls at all.

Hidden behind the layers of Himalayas, Spiti is Truly a Hidden Paradise and we surely are hungry for more!!!!

For more photos we took, click here  (highly recommended!!!).

P.S.:  Our guide and driver told us that ISRO scientists including Dr. Anil Kulkarni had come to study the retreating glaciers of the Himalayas and they had spotted a UFO at Samudra Tapur near Chandrataal lake.  Nikhil jumped on hearing this and after some research on the internet, he corroborated this information.  Now he wants to search for ETs at Chandrataal region (Samudra Tapu) himself too ;-).  So right now, I am sure that we are visiting Chandrataal in near future.  For more info on this, click here and here and also our blog post on such topics here and here.

Travel

Paradise that is Goa

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As we were planning for a short and sweet holiday, the obvious choice for both of us was Ever green holiday destination Goa. So unanimously (which happens very rarely!!!) we headed out for Goa in our Car.  Panjim is about 225 kms from Kolhapur.  It was a good time to test our GPS by MapMyIndia Navigator .  We booked our hotel at Candolim from where almost all North Goa beaches are nearby. On our first day we decided to visit Old Goa which is outside Panjim and about 25 kms from Candolim.  Our tour itinerarywas:

Day 1:

  • Basilica of BOM Jesus:  This Basilica is famous throughout the Roman Catholic world. It contains the tomb and mortal remains of St Francis Xavier who, in 1541, was given the task of spreading Christianity among the subjects of the Portuguese colonies in the East.  There is a modern art gallery attached to the Basilica which is a collection of photographs and sculptures. Though we are not art lovers we took a quick look at it and found it worth visiting!!  The next stop was just across the street another famous church Se Cathedral.
  • SE  Cathedral: This church is one of the oldest and most celebrated religious buildings     in Goa and is one of the largest churches in Asia. It houses a famous bell, often called The Golden Bell because of its rich sound. After spending some time in the peaceful surroundings of the Church, we left for Panjim, the Capital of Goa.
  • Panjim /Panaji City:        Panjim is a very beautiful city located at the banks of River Mandovi. We had a lot of time to spend till the sunset so we decided to see the city by walk. Walking on the footpaths of Panajim is a pleasure. We discovered the following walk trip in the beautiful city of Panjim.  Check it out.

“Start to Finish:  Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Distance: 6 kms

From the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception walk east up the hill along Emidio Gracia Rd (Corte de Oiterio). At the four-way junction, where you’ll see fruit-seller barrows, turn right into 31st January Rd. Continue down to the heritage hotel Panjim Inn.  Take the right fork of the road and continue south past the small fountain (not working) from which Fontainhas gets its name. Keep walking in the same direction until you see the steps off to the right leading uphill to the ornate, salmon-pink Maruti Temple, dedicated to the God Hanuman. The temple’s veranda provides fine views towards the Mandovi River. Nip behind the temple and follow the road up into the Altinho district.  When you reach a junction with a red ‘stop and proceed’ sign, turn right and continue around to the Bishop’s Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Goa. This grand white mansion, with a silver painted Jesus statue outside, lords it over the much-humbler Chief Minister’s Residence across the road. After gazing through the fence of these two buildings retrace your steps back past the Maruti Temple and back towards the fountain. Turn left at the cross- roads just before this and head towards the steps, just before these turn right and head up hill past lots of big old houses. After around 300m you’ll see a set of steps on your right descending downhill and marked by a crucifix. Heading down these you’ll pass by many colourful houses until you reach the Chapel of St Sebastian. Built in the 1880s, its most striking feature is a crucifix that originally stood in the Palace of the Inquisition in Old Goa.  Walk back to 31st January Rd and return to where the road meets up with the fruit stalls.  Then, at the junction with Emido Garcia Rd, continue straight over and into the brightly painted streets of Sao Tomé, pausing for a drink at the Hotel Venite. Afterwards continue on to the river, turn left and walk down to the Secretariat Building, left again at Jose Falcao Rd and, keeping an eye peeled for the strange flower- and star-coated crucifix built into a wall on the right, back to where you started at Church Sq.” 

  • Secretariat Building:  Considered to be one of the Goa’s oldest buildings, the Secretariat houses Goa’s state legislative assembly.  Originally, a palace of the Muslim ruler Adil Shah of Bijapur the monument was converted into viceroy’s official residence in 1759 by the Portuguese. Numerous attempts at renovation and repair have slowly converted an overtly Islamic structure into a giant colonial building, which boasts of a sloping tiled roofs and iron pillars.   Being a high profile building, heavy security cordon is guarding the building everyday. However, visitors are permitted to enter and check out the exquisite carvings and a strange amalgamation of cultural architectures.  Amazing!!
  • Miramar Beach: Miramar beach in Panaji is the prime hangout place of local and Indian tourists. After our walking spree in the city we decided to go to the beach for sunset. Sunset here is a feast to the eyes. We took a stroll along the long beach, from here we can see the Light house situated at Fort Aguada. 
  • River Mandovi and Cruise: We were back to Panjim for river cruise. The cruises were decorated with lighting.  We can see the whole of Panjim skyline from aboard the cruise covered with celebratory lights.  Mandovi is the main river of Goa along with River Zuari. We opted to go on a cruise on Mandovi river which took us on a ride till the river joins the sea. On board       here are live musical bands and groups which perform folk songs and dances of Goa. We enjoyed the life and art of Goa on an a hour long cruise.  There is also a Floating Casino for those who want to try their luck. 

After a very busy day, we were famished.  There are many great hotels in Panjim which serve traditional Goan food consisting mainly of variety of sea food.  We had our dinner at one of the hotels where we could taste the traditional goan cuisine. Sea food here was the best!!  We crunched crabs and crustaceans, devoured squid-o-rings, Bombay Duck (Fish), Mussels, King Fish and Xacuti. Visit Viva Panjim which offers cheap tasty Goan and Portuguese staples and the ambience that of a small town in Portugal.  Other notable eat outs in Panjim are Hotel Ritz, Pergola, George and Casa Moderna. 

          That was the end of our first tiring day in Goa and we decided to reitre for the day.            

Day 2

  • Arambol Beach, Kerim Beach and Fort Tricol/Terekhol:  First we visited Arambol Beach. It is quiet and peaceful and less crowded. We had a nice stroll along the beach under the warm sun. From here we headed to Fort Tricol.  A trip to the fort makes a good outing on a motorcycle, but we preferred our own vehicle. The winding 11.5 km road from Arambol passes through villages and rice paddies and rises up to provide good views over the countryside and Terekhol River. We stopped at Querim beach to find it deserted with very less visitors. We took a Ferry/Barge to cross the Terekhol River to Fort Tricol. One can take their motorcycle or car on the Barge / Ferry (The barge ride is free both ways) to the other side but, we preferred a walk of about 2 kms from the barge to the Fort, which  was, though little tiring in the noon, was refreshing.

Terekhol Fort  is situated on the northern bank of the Terekhol river and in Maharashtra State bordering Goa. It  was built by the Raja of Sawantwadi but,  it was captured by the Portuguese. The cChurch and the Fort were rebuilt then. Terekhol Fort was a key Portuguese fort for the defence of Goa, situated on the north side of the estuary of the Terekhol river, the northern most boundary of Goa. Customarily marked by turrets and surrounded by a ditch it overlooks the panoptic ocean. How many times in your life have you woken up in a fairy-tale castle overlooking the Arabian Sea? Well at  Terekhol,  the northernmost outpost of Goa, you finally have that chance!!  In the middle of the Fort is the church with a Goan façade. The view from the top of the fort was just breath-taking. One can spend a whole day in   the calm and quiet atmosphere of the castle with the great sounds of Arabian sea touching the shores.  The tranquility of the place is accentuated by the confluence of the serene sea and the river.  The fort presently houses a Tourist Heritage Hotel. We decided to have our evening tea and snacks here on the top of the castle enjoying the serene view of the sea with the hill background. We ordered Pancakes and Chilled Tomato Gazpacho Soup to end with Iced Tea.

          We decided to end the day with this visit and retired for the day.

Day 3:

  • Calangute Beach: Our first stop for the day was Calangute which is the  largest beach  in north Goa, visited by thousands of domestic and international tourists alike. We had a great walk along the  long beach side. There are various water sports like parasailing, paragliding, boats and water bikes available for the ones who are interested. We preferred to rest ourselves in one of the Beach shacks for a while. Then, we had our lunch at renowned beach side Hotel Souza Lobo where we enjoyed the tradional sea food dishes which were delightful.
  • Baga Beach: Baga beach  is smaller compared to other beach but certainly one of the most scenic and picturesque. Being less crowed than other beach helps even more who love to spend time calmly. The backdrop of hill and smooth brown sands made the beach instantly likeable.
  • Anjuna Beach: Anjuna is a quiet beach with calm waters of Arabian sea lapping softly to the Indian shore. Unlike Calangute it is less crowded and we could feel the silence. We took a short stroll to the beach and lazed out on the white sands for a while before going to Vagator.
  • Mandrem:  Then we headed to the next beach south of Anjuna,  Mandrem, which is one huge palm backed ribbon of clean and uncluttered sand; it’s one of Goa’s undiscovered gems. It’s good for midrange travellers looking to kick back and do absolutely nothing.
  • Vagator:  Vagator beach offered us a stretch of soft white sands, coconut palms, and a scenic view of the Arabian Sea. We enjoyed our sun set at Vagator.  On our way back we had a nice quick munch of Tacos and Tortillas at a Mexican Restaurant on Vagator.
  • Night life:  Night life in Goa is equally vibrant as the beaches. One can have a range of Goan, Continental, Thai, Chinese and many more Indo Asian food joints.  We visited Hotel Jambalaya frequented mostly by foreigners near our resort in Candolim where the live band of local boys was belting out numbers by GnR, Dire Straits and the like with a few Konkani and Hindi songs amidst travellers enjoying cocktails. It was a rocking night!!!  Another hot spot is Tito’s which is a famous discotheque in Goa.

Day 4:

  • Candolim Beach : The next day we decided to see Candolim beach which was just few minutes’ walk from our resort. This beach offered us the quiet atmosphere and scenic background. It was a full moon day and there was high tide. We enjoyed all the morning in the warm waters of the sea amongst high rising waves. An amazing experience one should not miss!! Candolim is an adjacent beach of Calangute but, is less crowded than Calangute. One can have a long walk or sunbathe at the beds provided by the shacks.  After spending almost half a day here we decided to leave for Fort Aguada another tourist attraction of Goa.
  • Fort Aguada:  On the way to Aguada, we stopped for lunch.  This old Portuguese fort stands on the beach south of Candolim, at the shore of the Mandovi river. Constructed by Portugese in the year 1612 to guard against Dutches and Marathas. A freshwater spring within the fort provided water supply to the ships that used to stop by. This is how the Fort got its name. Aguada means Water. After spending some time in the fort we went to see the 4-storey Portuguese lighthouse, erected in 1864 and the oldest of its kind in Asia.  If you reach before 5.30 pm you can climb the top of the light house by paying a small amount of ‘entry fee’. We were lucky enough to reach there just before closing time and on time for the sun set in the Great Arabian Sea. The view from the top is breath-taking. At one side we can see  the great river Mandovi, the other side we can see the vast Arabian sea and the beach of Candolim. 

North Goa was explored by us.  The next day we returned back to Kolhapur hoping to return back to Goa and hungry for more and to explore South Goa. 

P.S.:  All thanks to our MapMyIndia GPS Navigator for making our Goa holiday a smooth sailing by 99% efficiently navigating us through the intricate roadlines in Goa.

Dosa Festival, Food, Recipes

Rava Maida Dosa


Ingredients: 2 cups Rava (Samolina), 1 cup Maida, 1 small onion, 1-2 Green chillies, A    small bunch of Coriander Leaves, Salt to Taste, Oil.

Method: In a deep bowl add rava , maida with water to make batter. Cut onion and chillies      in to small pieces. Add chopped onions and chillies with chopped coriander leaves to the  batter. Add salt. The batter for dosa is ready. Heat pan/Griddle (Tava) with oil.  Pour/spread the batter in round shape to make dosa.  Add a little oil around the dosa. For this dosa, you need to pour the batter on the tava in round form  (as much as possible) as this batter cannot be spread on to the pan by the back of the spoon. (For instant dosa  always  spread oil on the pan before making each dosa).  Fry till golden brown from both the sides. Rava maida dosa is ready to serve. (This is an instant dosa, prepare dosas   immediately once the  batter is ready.)

Accompaniments:

Coconut Chutney:

Ingredients: Fresh grated Coconut 1 cup, 2-3 Green chillies, Small piece of Tamarind, Salt to taste, Water

Method: Fry green chillies for a minute and then grind all the above ingredients adding water as necessary to a paste. Add salt to taste. Chutney is ready to serve with dosa.

Dosa Festival, Food, Recipes

Moong Dosa


Ingredients: Moong 2 cups, Rice 1 ½ Table spoon, 2-3 Green Chillies, 1 Tea Spoon  Cummin seeds (Jeera), A small (about 1/4th to ½ cup) bunch of Coriander leaves, Salt to taste, Oil.

Method: Soak moong and rice for about 4-5 hours. Grind soak moong and rice with all the above ingredients in thin paste. Add salt with water to make a batter. Heat pan or griddle (Tava) with oil.  Spread the batter on the pan in circular motions to make dosa.    Cover for about half a minute. Fry till golden brown from both sides. Serve hot with Coconut chutney. (Make the dosas immediately after preparing batter.  Refrigerate batter if you want to prepare dosas at a later time.)

Accompaniments:

  • Coconut Chutney:

Ingredients: Fresh grated Coconut 1 cup, 2-3 Green chillies, Small piece of  Tamarind, Salt to taste, Water

Method: Fry green chillies for a minute and then grind all the above ingredients adding water as necessary to a paste. Add salt to taste. Chutney is ready to be served with dosa.

Dosa Festival, Food, Recipes

Masala Dosa


  • Ingredients for Dosa: Rice 4 cups, 1 cup Urad Daal, 1 tea spoon Fenugreek seeds ( Methi),  ¼ tea spoon Turmeric powder, Salt to taste, Oil or Ghee, Water.

Method: Soak Rice and Urad daal separately for about 4-5 hours. Soak Fenugreek seeds with Rice. Grind the soaked ingredients in thin paste. Add salt, turmeric powder with water  to make batter and keep aside for 6 to 7 hours. Heat  pan or griddle with little oil or Ghee. Spread the batter on pan in circular motions to make thin dosa.  Cover with a lid for half a minute. Add a little  oil or ghee on the dosa. Fry till golden brown. Dosa is ready.

  • Ingredients for Masala: 2-3 Medium sized potatoes, 1 Medium size Onion, 3-4 Green chillies, ¼ Tea spoon Turmeric Powder, Salt to taste, 1 table spoon Oil.

Method: Boil potatoes and cut in small pieces. Cut the onions in small pieces. Then heat oil in a deep pan, add chopped onions and fry. Add chopped green chillies and turmeric powder.  Once the onions are golden brown add potatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add salt to taste.   Do not add water as the masala should be dry to be filled in the Dosa. Once the dosa is golden brown add the filling on the dosa (Only in the middle) and fold the dosa from both the sides. Serve hot with coconut chutney.

Accompaniments:

  • Coconut Chutney:

Ingredients: Fresh grated Coconut 1 cup, 2-3 Green chillies, small piece of  Tamarind,  Salt to taste, Water

Method: Fry green chillies for a minute and then grind all the above ingredients adding water as necessary to a paste. Chutney is ready.

Dosa Festival, Food, Recipes

Paper Dosa

Ingredients: 4 cups Rice, 1 cup Urad Daal, 1 tea spoon Fenugreek seeds (Methi), 1 Table spoon Semolina (Rava), Salt to taste and Oil or Ghee for frying.

Method: Separately soak Rice and Urad Daal.  Soak Methi with Rice for 4 to 5 hours. Grind the soaked ingredients adding Semolina while grinding to thin paste. Add Salt with water to make batter and keep aside for 6 to 7 hours. Heat  pan or  griddle with a little oil or Ghee. Spread the batter on pan in circular motions to make thin dosa.  Cover with a lid for half a minute. Add about ½ a tea spoon of oil or ghee on the dosa. Fry till golden brown and remove from pan.  Serve hot.

Accompaniments:

  • Coconut Chutney:

Ingredients: Fresh grated Coconut 1 cup, 2-3 Green chillies,Small piece of  Tamarind, Salt to taste, Water

Method: Fry green chillies for a minute and then grind all the above ingredients adding water as necessary to a paste. Chutney is ready to eat with Dosa.

And / or

  • Onion and Besan Sabzi (Zhunka / Pithala):

Ingredients: 2 Onions, 3-4 Green chillies, 3 table spoons of Besan, ½ tea spoon Turmeric powder, Salt to taste, 1 table spoon Oil, Water, Coriander leaves for garnishing.

Method: Cut the onions and chillies in thin slices, Heat oil in a deep pan, add sliced onions and fry till golden brown.  Meanwhile add green chillies and turmeric powder. Add 2-3 cups of water and make it to boil. When the water starts bubbling, add besan and stir continuously to avoid lumps. Simmer on low flame for 3-4 minutes, add salt.  Garnish with chopped Coriander leaves. And serve hot with dosa.