Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Backpacking in the city of spires and smiles

Trundling along in a tuk-tuk, along the straight roads of Siem Reap, my husband and I were excitedly soaking up the sights and sounds of Cambodia. Our swollen backpacks were gently bumping up and down, as the charming half motorcycle-half wagon sped on its way to our destination. Past glistening rice fields and wooden houses we went, till we caught the sudden glimmer of water in the distance. We picked our way through the slightly muddy pathway to boat number 36 that was taking us to Kampong Phluk, one of the many floating villages that dotted Tonle Sap, the great lake of Siem Reap. Tonle Sap is the biggest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is also unique as the waters expand and decrease according to the seasons. As we rode the waves, our tuk-tuk driver turned guide told us that we were still more than forty minutes away from the actual lake. Our boat was traversing a portion of the waters that was actually a tarred road for eight months of the year. Amazed, we sat back and watched as the ‘floating village’ came into view. “Water dwellings” is what comes to mind as you see the group of houses perched atop eight-meter wooden stilts. Children row themselves to school waving and smiling widely as they pass. Babies precariously balanced on the topmost steps of their homes. Families going about their daily business as naturally as we do on land unmindful of the water that lay all around them. We halted at a local house for a snack and then watched the world drift by, as we waited for our boatwoman to arrive.

The wait was well worth it. We followed her to her wooden canoe and balanced ourselves as she rowed to the mangrove forest through the village. Half submerged, the branches brushing the water, the forest is silent except for the occasional crickets chirping and the throaty warbling of birds. We sit wordlessly soaking in the dreamlike environment. Siem Reap is already proving to be a lot more surreal than its reputation.

And nothing proved that to us more than watching dawn break over the biggest religious monument in the world, the Angkor Wat. Built in the early 12th century, the structure stands with four out of its original five towers standing proud. Adorned with bas-reliefs depicting the scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and royal processions of past kings, walking through the temple is like taking a stroll back in time. As we walk up the steep stone steps and along the stone corridors, we stand in awe of the skill of the ancient Khmers and at the way in which their architecture has endured over the centuries. The feeling resurfaces at the early 13th century temple of Bayon that is known for its complex of face towers. With as many as thirty-seven towers soaring upward, each etched on all four sides with a face with an enigmatic smile, this temple is one of the most impressive of the temples in the Angkor complex. The faces look down on us as we explore the temple attempting to search for an Indian connection in the bas -reliefs. To me, the mysterious smiles on the faces seemed to be of those who had seen much transpire over the centuries.

Nowhere in the town of Angkor do you feel as transported back to the past as you do at Ta Prohm. A popular tourist jaunt, since the temple was featured in the 2001 hit Tomb Raider, its best visited in the wee hours of the morning, when there is scarcely anyone around. Huge silk cotton trees and strangler figs have taken over the once magnificently carved temple. Roots thicker than trunks have ripped through stone roofs and grown over structures, forcing them to bow to nature’s far superior strength. It almost seems like nature is forcefully reclaiming the land that rightfully belonged to her. It’s an overwhelming sight that seems to be telling us, that no matter what man achieves there are always forces that are beyond his control.

For those who are interested in symbolism and sculpture, Angkor Wat and the temples that lie across the four hundred square kilometre regions are treasure troves of knowledge. They say a lifetime is not enough to absorb all that the region has to offer. We had, but three days. While we attempted to give the must-see temples the attention it deserves, we also decided to explore a few temples that lay off the beaten path. Notable amongst them was Banteay Srei, a temple with sculptures so intricate and exquisite that female artisans were rumoured to have crafted them. We gaped at the sandstone carvings of mythological figures and a thought crossed my mind. Have we really progressed as much as we claim to in architecture and design? I am yet to see any modern building that matches up to what we saw at Angkor. Yet another site, Kbal Spean was entirely a series of religious motifs etched on either sides of the riverbank, where the water gushes past them, in the way it has over the centuries. The fact that the site is more than 2100 metres uphill, through a dense forest just added to the mystique of the region.

Temples, floating villages, abandoned ruins; we explored and absorbed all that Siem Reap has to offer. And yet I found it impossible to label Siem Reap either as the gateway town or as any thing else. To me, apart from the incredible sights, what stood out were the people. Welcoming the masses of travellers to their town with palms clasped together by their chest and a warm, genuine smile, they make you feel at home. No matter which part of the town we trudged to, the smiles were unwavering and unconditional. And while the sight of seeing the sun rise slowly over the Angkor Wat will remain one of my fondest memories of Siem Reap, so will the smiles of the Khmers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Of underground expeditions and hiking in the clouds

Each sharp bend in the winding mountain road was heightening our sense of anticipation. Our destination was Sagada, a must-go for adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies, located high up in the mountain province of the Philippines. The journey had taken us sixteen hours from Manila and the twelve of us who had been on the road were waiting to set foot onto the mountain township. Its not like the journey had been any less exciting though. Lining the long and winding road were the famed rice terraces that are centuries old. These terraces have the distinction of being on the UNESCO world heritage site list. Built by the Ifugao tribe for their own community, the terraces are a spectacular sight. For as far as we could see, the mountains around us had been carved into large rice fields that looked like massive amphitheatres. It was in awe-struck silence and with our eyes fixed on these man-made structures that we made our way up to the sleepy town of Sagada nestled in the Cordilleras mountain range.

Scarcely had we taken in the mild wintery feel and the cool mountain breeze, that it was time to head to yet another site Sagada was famous for. Its limestone caves that form a crisscrossing network deep underneath the mountain town. Our group was being taken on a cave connection adventure. This meant that we would be doing some hard-core spelunking to get to the tourist friendly Sumaguing cave that was known for its limestone formations. Our entry point was the lesser-known Lumiang cave. Once used as a burial cave, even today massive pinewood coffins mark the entrance and set the foreboding tone for the rest of the adventure. Local guides who led the way with Petromax lanterns accompanied our group in our descent to the bowels of the earth. “This cave is only 100 metres deep while Sumaguing is around 163 metres, ” the head guide told us in a hearty manner. Not sure whether the information was vital to my survival, with a slightly pounding heart, I took my first step into the depths of the clammy cave. And within a few minutes, I knew that there was no training or information that could have prepared me for this underground expedition.

Cold and moist to the touch, the cave is filled with narrow claustrophobic spaces that you have to squeeze through to move forward. Right hand clutching onto a rock above ones head, left in another crevice, right foot firmly placed on a largish rock while the left foot dangles in space looking for a foothold. As the hours went by our movements started to have a distinct rhythm, ‘Stumble, grasp, clutch and slide’. As we moved closer and closer to the second cave the terrain changed from rocky to muddy. Left with lone rocks to clutch onto, more and more of us found ourselves clambering up clay slopes, slipping and sliding all the way. With the help of ropes and the will power to see daylight again, and to the accompaniment of the shrill shrieks of the thousands of bats that inhabited the caves, we ploughed on. When suddenly, we stopped in our tracks to see the breathtaking sight that made it all worthwhile. This was Sagada’s underground river, the force that had shaped these limestone caves and the formations inside, over thousands of years. We had to wade through the bone-chilling, crystal clear waters to exit the caves. At the end of five and a half hours, it was a dirt and bat dropping encrusted group that emerged into the open air with shaky knees and scrapes galore. And yet what we had seen and experienced made all the aches and pains, pale in comparison.

The next day at the break of dawn, we trooped up Kiltepan viewpoint to catch the first sunrays touch Sagada. And true to its reputation, the sight of the sun breaking through the clouds and bathing Sagada in its mild orange hue was stunning. After watching Sagada wake up, we headed towards our next challenge, a one and a half hour trek to the biggest falls in the area Bomod-Ok. We hiked along rice terraces, across streams and through small village settlements. Even with the occasional stop on the way to take pictures, it was not long before the waterfalls came into view. Cascading from a height of almost two hundred feet, we felt the cold spray from the falls temptingly dust our skin. It was all the invitation we needed to unload our backpacks and dive into the ice-cold waters. It was a thoroughly refreshed group that made their way back the mountainside to call it a day.

We all woke up with a twinge of sadness on the last day, as in a few hours it would be time to head back to Manila. But even then there was no time to dwell on it, as there were places to see and experience before we left. First stop was the St Mary’s Episcopal church the oldest in the mountain province. After a few moments of peaceful contemplation inside the calm, stone structure it was time to hike across the Cavalry hills to the Echo valley. Cupping our hands we shouted out syllable after syllable and waited for the valley to obligingly repeat our words. And then came the final destination, Sagada’s centuries old living tradition of the Hanging Coffins. Perched precariously on the Sagada’s limestone cliffs, these coffins dot the landscape, with the oldest coffin being centuries old, while the latest just a few weeks.

To me, Sagada was a kaleidoscope of experiences that are mystical and overwhelming. And while we kept our faces to the window for the last glimpses of the township, I realized that what one of my fellow travelers had told me at the beginning of the trip was indeed true. “If this is your first visit here,” he had said, “Be warned, for Sagada is addictive!”

Friday, September 4, 2009

Road trip to Camayan- A photo essay

Clear skies and a sunny day after ages was what prompted us to hit the roads from Manila, on a Saturday morning in the direction of Subic. At a distance of around 150 kilometres, this is where some of the beaches that are closest to Manila are. Our destination was the Camayan beach resort, known for its beach front rooms and pristine beach. However the fun started way before we actually reached Camayaan. The less than two hour drive from Manila to Subic is via some of the best and scenic roads in the nation. The scenery ranges from the Lahar flow from the 1991 Mt Pinatubo eruption to the SCTEX highway itself that has been made by literally, cutting through mountains.

Though Subic is known for its free port, the place is not in any way limited by beaches alone. The abundant forests in the area have also led to a number of tree-top adventure parks as well as Jungle Safari parks. Though we were headed to the beach, I managed to click a few forest giants that seemed to be stepping out of their green abode, ‘a la talking trees of the Lord of the Rings Style’

Camayan wharf is at the end of this gorgeous, winding road. Huge mangroves that make up a natural sheltered path on the beach line the shore. The perfect place to relax after a swim. We also took our time on the shore clicking what seemed to be the strangest flowers that we saw strewn all around the sand. If any of you know what these flowers are called, do drop in a line. We’ve been unable to figure out so far.

And what’s a better way to end a day on the beach than lapping up the sound of waves while enjoying some great food and cocktails on a tastefully lit restaurant on the seaside. All in all, Camayan is proof that you don’t have to go a long way from home for some rest and rejuvenation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Manila – An old filigree with new threads

The first thought that struck me as my cab rolled out of Manila airport, is just how normal Manila looks. For all the hype of being the capital of one of the most beautiful island nations in the world, Manila is far removed from the coconut tree lined, sandy beach you might be expecting. It is also not the shiny Southeast Asian city like glistening Hong Kong or spotless Singapore. Manila is just Manila.

Wide roads with the latest cars making way for the ubiquitous jeepneys…Skyscrapers with Mac Donald’s in the ground floor, next to single storied buildings with small eateries offering Inasal chicken and garlic rice. To the traveler, Manila is a city that is moving forward to embrace the future while the past still hangs around, as an old friend, you run into now and then.

Over the first few days, I roamed around getting to know the Philippines and its people. I realized that they really like malls here. There are roads that cut through these gigantic structures that are easily a few kilometers across with a different township on either side. I’ve heard stories of mall goers who’ve forgotten where they parked their car and had to spend three hours looking for them in the vast parking areas. Mall’s are a serious part of soaking up Manila. And it’s O.K even if you’re not a big shopper. They are great places for some uncomplicated people watching as well. Malls are to Manila what parks and gardens are to us back home in India. They are places to catch up, to relax, and to have relaxed family lunches and all the walking around gives you some serious exercise as well.

And exercise is vital, here of all places where different kinds of eateries are poised at every corner tempting you, as you stroll by. Manila is a veritable paradise for the foodie. From traditional Filipino cuisine to food stalls boasting of all sorts of fare from Spanish, Mexican, French, Japanese and every other country in the world, it’s hard to live in Manila without some yummy in your tummy…every day.

But the best of all are the people, the strangers who I’ve encountered here. I’ve traveled by the metro during the city’s weekday rush hour and never have I been jostled. I've caught Taxis without knowing a smattering of Tagalog and had long conversations with drivers about different cultures. From the security personnel asking to check your bag at the malls to the woman who just bought the last donut, all of them have a smile on their lips and a greeting. The day Manila convinced me that I can still afford to believe in the goodness of man, was the day me and my husband were stopped by a cop for a wrong turn, who then proceeded to apologize to me for having disturbed us on our drive!

Sometimes Manila reminds me a little of Delhi with its broad roads, Mumbai with its bay and Bangalore with its traffic jams. And then sometimes, I see the city for what it really is to someone who’s so far from her country, it’s a city that’s all heart and open arms.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Freewheeling through India’s beach capital

The Sun, Sand and the sea are three very basic components that make for a fantastic summer vacation. And boasting of the best location for a holiday to soak up the sun while in the lap of the sea is Goa. The beach state has been on my must-go list for a while, but it was the potential expense that had me hesitating. Huge portions of the tiny state have been taken over by multi-starred hotel chains, rendering it a destination for foreigners with foreign exchange and NRI’s. However, the truth is that you neither need to be unusually rich or a green card holder to enjoy a holiday in Goa, as my cousin and me found out.
It was an uneventful beginning to a long weekend that led us to Goa on more of a whim than anything else. Jumping onto a second-class compartment, we found ourselves in Vasco station. The train journey in itself is scenic and you also get to see the Doodhsagar falls, which true to its name are milky cascades. Vasco station is a lot less crowded than Madgaon, which is the principal station. Yet it has its share of touts and crooks in the guise of unauthorized tourist guides and capricious cab drivers. Warned in advance by a Goan friend, we headed straight to the Vasco bus stand. Our destination was Panjim, home to Mandovi River and a tourist hub for those interested in the beaches of North Goa. The one and a half hour bus ride to Panjim is not anything to write home about in terms of exotic locales or scenic beauty. You might as well be riding on a bus in pretty much any suburb in any part of India. However, the one distinct impression that stays on is that of the constant smell of fish in varied forms. From fresh seafood to dried fish, the smell has enveloped the region and is part and parcel of the Goa experience, whether you decide to hike up to the forts or relax in the sun.
My cousin and I had called up the Goan Tourism Department Corporation (GTDC) to check whether rooms were available in their Calangute hotel. Calangute beach was known as the hub for all things happening and fun in this side of Goa. Heading to Calangute, in a good old 1988 vintage ambassador, the GTDC person’s non-committal grunts were ringing in our ears. But the sights, sounds and smells on the way to Calangute, which showed off the vibrancy and the energy of the beach state kept our spirits high. The first glimpse of Calangute is a surprising one. After various twists and turns on a winding route, the road suddenly straightens out for half a kilometer or so. And at the end of the road, the beach suddenly rises up to meet the road, which stops a few meters shy of the sea, at a series of steps which head to the sand. The GTDC has been lucky enough to build a hotel right next to these steps facing the dark waters. We decided to bunk there for the trip as we were a couple of hours away from sunset and we wanted to be near enough the beach to catch our first sunset in Goa. Also a stone’s or rather shell’s throw away is Souza Lobos. One of the oldest eateries in the area, they not only serve mouth watering Goan cuisine but also boast of a traditional live Goan band. We chose to sit at a table outdoors, with our toes sinking into the sand, tucking into Chicken Vindaloo, with Konkani melodies and the crashing waves in the background.
The next day we were up early and rewarded by a near deserted beach with the water at just the right temperature for a dip. And the best way to get yourself dry is to take a walk along the shore. A brisk walk further down takes you to Baga, the tranquil extension of the beach, known for its fisherman’s village. Yet at night, the beach transforms into one of the liveliest night scenes around with popular hangouts like Tito’s and Mambo’s staying open till the wee hours of dawn.
Next on the agenda was roaming around the countryside Goan style. With neither the money nor inclination to pay overpriced cabs, we decided to hire a scooter, a service available in most stalls around Calangute. Zooming off to the nearby beaches of Anjuna, Vagator and Candolim are easiest, if one decides to take this mode of transport. This way we got to discover picturesque looking by lanes looking like postcards from Portugal and feel the sea breeze in our hair and sun beating down on us. It was like an actual slice of Goa as opposed to the sanitized guided tour.
A fort we came across by chance, on the road trip was Chapora. While it’s Fort Aguada which most Indian tourists head to believing it to be the fort immortalized by the Bollywood hit Dil Chahta Hai (2001), locals told us that it was Chapora which was actually the scene of all the action. Riding the scooter up an impossibly steep hill, with nothing vaguely touristy anywhere near, we reached Chapora’s foothills. Confronted by the prospect of a vertical trek up loose dusty stones and dry grass, it was only the dream of photographing ourselves as the stars did, that made us climb up. A fabulous view of the sunset over the waves of Vagator made the effort worthwhile.
At the end of our weekend it was a multitude of experiences that we took back from Goa. From flea Markets and English Breakfasts to clear and rocky waters and excited masses trying out banana boats and water scooters, there’s something for everyone in Goa. And no matter which part of the state you head to, you don’t need to be a millionaire to experience it.

The New Indian Express, April, 2009

Footloose in Palawan

I confess! The only thing I knew about the Philippines or cared to read about for a very long time was about Imelda Marcos’s vast shoe collection. Little did I know that I had a very different kind of Filipino education in store for me in my future! So come circa 2009, finding myself in Manila, I realized that it was time to discover the nation for myself and perhaps uncover a few of its enigmatic islands. Now being a nation made up of 7,107 islands, it’s inevitable that the Philippines can boast of beaches of almost every kind. From those that seem to be hand crafted by the Creator for diving and snorkeling to surfers haven. Topping the tourist’s must-see list in the archipelago is Boracay. Yet the more I looked at travel information to the beach known for its powdery white sands and amazing water, the more I felt like heading to another lesser known destination- Palawan. Located in the south of the Philippines, Palawan was touted as a collection of 1,780 islands with exquisite beaches and foliage, which could be likened to Borneo rather than the Philippines. Two birds with one stone thought I. Next step book flight tickets and make reservations at Club Paradise, a private island eco-resort in Dimakya Island in Northern Palawan.
One of the hardest things of packing for my three nights and four days package tour at Palawan was how I had to voluntarily travel light. Now this gave my husband a lot of glee, as he certainly did not want to be the one lugging the bags around. And giving him this reason to smile was the flight that we had to catch. The Philippines airlines flight to Palawan only allows you to take ten kilograms per person. So swinging our negligible luggage and breezing past security, we finally boarded the quaint looking Bombardier turboprop to Palawan, which promised to take us there in little over an hour. Bagging the window seat certainly worked out in my favour, as flying out through the clouds looming over Manila I was treated to the first glimpse of Palawan. And what a promising one it was, as it was not only the turquoise waters and the white sand that we could see, but also the coral reefs bordering the isles.
One hour after photographs through the cubbyhole which aeroplanes call a window, we touched down at Busuanga airport, one of the airports in Palawan. Walking out of the charming wood paneled airport, our very tropically dressed (read that as orange shorts and a sky blue floral t-shirt) resort guide greeted us. He then promptly bundled us into a Jeepney to drop us to our ferry. Jeepneys, which are open-air oversized jeeps, are used quite a lot in Palawan, which does not have a lot of vehicular traffic, and therefore no tarmac roads. The ride to the ferry was eventful to say the least- dusty, punctuated with sudden bumps and passing by some of the most amazing grasslands with exotic trees and the occasional villager waving at us.
However nothing in any tourist brochure could have prepared us for the first look of the river we were supposed to cross to reach our island destination. Bordered by mangroves on both sides, looking out of the ferry was a surreal experience. An hour-long boat ride on the river and then on the high seas, suddenly the resort guide pointed out the speck in the distance that would be our home for the next three nights. With each bobbing motion of the boat, the anticipation and excitement rose a little bit higher. And finally we were there.
To the background of an island welcome song and the accompaniment of a fresh mango shake, we tiptoed along the narrow ramp of the boat and happily jumped onto the island.
Overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the spot, the first thing we decided to do was soak it up and that too literally. The waters surrounding the island are perfect for swimming and better still snorkeling. The area is known for its coral reefs and the resort made sure that we could enjoy them to the fullest by handing out free snorkeling gear. Call it voyeurism of a different kind if you want, but watching different kinds of vibrantly coloured reef fish swimming around their habitat, blissfully unaware of the humans around is quite thrilling.
However soaking in the warm waters aside, the island is also a great place for trekking. We even chanced upon a monitor lizard while hiking up to the highest point of the isle. Though it frightened the wits out of me, don’t worry the lizard as well as the fruit bats that are in abundance on the resort are not at all interested in the humans that tend to cross their path.
Located at the northern most tip of Palawan, Dimakya is also a great place to plan island hopping trips from as there are quite a few ones that you can explore while you are there. Yet according to me, the best way to enjoy Palawan is by pulling up a lounge chair and losing oneself in the stunning sunset you can see from here.
Time seems to stand still in this paradise at times, but for me it passed much too fast. And on the ferry ride back to traffic lights and zooming cars, all I could think of was the memories of being barefoot in paradise.

The New Indian Express, March 2009

In the company of fallen monuments

As the car rolls down the approach road to the famed ruins of Hampi in Karnataka, an involuntary gulp of expectation arises. Set in a forbidding backdrop of boulders precariously perched on one another, Hampi is the seat of the 15th century Vijaynagara Empire, capital of the famous King Krishnadevaraya.

The ruins wrought mainly in stone are scattered over 26 kms with the river Tungabhadra as a boundary in its North. Declared a world heritage site in 2002, this medieval city has also been identified as Kishkinda, the monkey kingdom mentioned in the Ramayana.

The first stop in Hampi is always the Virupaksha temple, the only active place of worship in the ruins. The temple has a 120 feet tall tower and houses the shrines of Shiva, Pampa and Bhuvaneshwari. Replete with carvings and ancient vegetable dye paintings, some parts of the temple are supposed to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom.

Moving on, one can see the 9 ft monolithic structure of the Mustard Ganesha and the 6.7 m tall monolith of the Ugra Narasimha, which for many is the symbol of Hampi. These are but two of the many monuments, which fell prey to the swords of the invaders who finally felled the city.

Driving on through the dusty terrain, one reaches the Hazari Rama temple, believed to be one of the finest specimens of South Indian temple architecture. As the name suggests, it boasts of 1000 exquisite stone carvings of scenes from the Ramayana.

A pathway from the temple leads to the striking Mahanavami Dibba seated on which the royal family is said to have viewed the nine-day Dasera festival parades. The structure is a huge nine storied platform with carvings detailing the art of warfare inscribed on its walls.

The next stop is the famed Lotus Mahal, a summer retreat made for the queens in a lotus flower like structure. A fusion of the Indo-Muslim styles, the monument has a unique air cooling system. Within the same grounds are the huge and elaborate Elephants stables which housed the king’s 11 elephants.

Next is the most anticipated stop, the Vittala temple complex, known as one of the most splendid monuments of all times. A magnificent stone chariot with movable wheels in the temple complex is a shining example of Vijayanagara Architecture. Another testimony to the same is the Sangeeta Mandapa made of 56 finely carved stone pillars which emit different musical notes when struck.

As one says farewell to the city there is awe and silent admiration for those ancient builders. Thanks to them, today, more than 500 years after it was silenced, Hampi is still a city with many stories to tell.

Hindustan Times, June, 2005