Chungthang – A Hospitable Experience

The Unexpected Brings You Most Joy

My friend Piyush and I were en route to Lachung – a remote village in North Sikkim, India. We had booked a package covering Lachen – Lachung – Yumthang over one night and two days for Rs1500. We were received at the pickup point by our twenty year old driver, Sontosh. Even before we began our journey to Lachen, we bonded really well with the driver and had become friends with him. We were ten passengers in the jeep who together travelled well-adjusted even with our mixed preferences and differences.

Piyush and I were sitting next to the driver and had direct access to the stereo so we kept mixing the playlist, entertaining Sontosh who was having a good laugh.

The roads were rough and it was drizzling when we started but, it did not prepare us for what was to come next.

Read more Chungthang – A Hospitable Experience

Alibaug – A Fort and Three Beaches

A Day Out in Alibaug

Alibaug is a perfect getaway to help you relax and be one with nature. I set out to Alibaug on a Saturday and hope my itinerary will help you plan your trip well.

Alibaug is a coastal town in the Raigad district of Maharashtra situated 110 km from Mumbai. There are ferries that ply from Gateway of India to Mandwa Jetty throughout the day from 6 a.m to 6 p.m except for during the monsoon season. There are three ferry operators – P.N.P, Ajanta and Maldar and ticket prices range from Rs. 85 to Rs 150. It will take you around 60min to reach Mandwa. You can also hire a private speed boat that will get you to Mandwa in 20 minutes. Each ferry company has their own private buses from Mandwa Jetty to Alibaug town. The bus fare is included in the ferry ticket. We travelled by the 6:15 a.m ferry.

The sunrise that you witness while you are on the ferry is second to none. Keep your camera on hand at all times as each moment will give you a different picture because of the change in intensity of light. You will be able to see luxury yachts anchored off the coast and also a few naval vessels on the way to Mandwa. We reached Mandwa jetty at 8:15 a.m. It took us 2 hours as there was a slight delay in the departure of the ferry. The bus to the main town was to leave in about 25 minutes after we reached the jetty. Instead of waiting for the bus we decided to take an auto rickshaw directly to Alibaug beach. The auto rickshaws here are large and can comfortably seat six passengers. Amongst the four of us we paid Rs.400 in total. The ride to the beach is about half an hour. There are trees on either side of the road and  a slight haze of early morning fog.

Alibaug beach is quite commercialized, the moment we set foot on the beach we were flocked by vendors offering us water rides and other beach activities. The beach is not very clean due to the crowd. Even though it was just 8:45 a.m there was a substantial crowd already present on the beach. To the left hand side of the beach there is a provision for pay and use changing rooms and toilets. About one kilometer into the water is the Kolaba Fort.

The Kolaba Fort was built in the year 1681 by Sambhaji Maharaj, son of Shivaji Maharaj. A major portion of the fort and a few buildings was lost in two fires in the years 1729 and 1787. You can reach the fort by foot or on carriages when it is low tide. Otherwise, boats ply to and fro from Alibaug beach to the fort. We travelled to the fort on a donkey carriage. Our rider waited for us while we spent an hour at the fort. The most intriguing feature of the fort is that it has number of freshwater wells even though it is a seaside fort. The fort has a Siddhivinayak temple which people frequent mainly during the Ganesh festival. There are also a few houses present of people who take care of the fort.

We reached back to Alibaug beach and relaxed for a while. If you walk straight from the main exit of the beach, after two cross roads you will find a decent restaurant. The breakfast there was not amazing but good enough to reenergize us. While we were waiting and thinking where to head next an auto rickshaw stopped by. The driver suggested that one of the best beaches in Alibaug is Kashid. But, Kashid is quite far and would take around one and a half hours to get there. Since we had just a day to spend, instead of travelling so far we decided to skip it. I am not a big fan of crowded commercialized beaches and would rather prefer a beach that is secluded and not many people frequent it. We asked the driver if there were any such beaches nearby. He suggested we go to Akshi beach and then head towards Nagaon beach.

On the way to Akshi from Alibaug we stopped at a Lotus pond. There is a narrow walkway that leads to the center of the pond. The ride to Akshi beach cost us Rs.200. It took half an hour to get there. At the entrance of the beach there were a few stalls selling chai and other eatables. Tall trees all around us and a steady flow of wind just felt extremely pleasant and serene. The beach looked like a flat desert because of the low tide. Apart from the four of us there were only six other people on the beach. This beach was clean and calm unlike Alibaug beach. This beach has no activities. You should just sit down, close your eyes and listen to the waves.

Nagaon beach from Akshi is 3.5 k.m. You will get auto rickshaws from Akshi beach but I suggest that you take your own time and walk along the coast from Akshi to Nagaon which we did. The walk can be a bit tiring especially if you do it in the blazing sun. Keep yourself hydrated and wear a cap to help protect yourself from a heatstroke. There are a number of resorts and private houses that open onto the beach along the way. The stairs to each of these properties can make for very interesting pictures. A lot of fishermen have their boats present on the coast.

As you near Nagaon beach you will be able to see jellyfish in the sky (read parasailing people). Nagaon beach is very commercialized. There are a number of activities right from camel rides to parasailing. There are a lot of shacks present as well. Do not miss the seafood from the shacks. By the time we left the beach it was already 4 p.m. We took an auto rickshaw directly back to Mandwa jetty as were tired and did not really want to travel by bus. The ride cost us Rs. 500 and it took 45 minutes to get to the jetty. We got the 17:15 p.m. ferry and headed back to Mumbai.

Best beaches in Alibaug:

  • Alibaug
  • Mandwa
  • Kashid
  • Akshi
  • Varsoli
  • Nagaon
  • Murud
  • Rewas

Things to Carry:

  • Beach Towel
  • Sunscreen
  • Lots of Water
  • A few snacks
  • An adventurous attitude

TAKTSANG MONASTERY – INTO THE TIGER’S LAIR

Legend has it that Padmasambhava flew to this site on a Tigress. He came to subdue a Tiger demon. If you look closely at the cliff on which the Taktsang Monastery rests, you will see the face of a tiger.  Taktsang is a Tibetian word that literally translates into “Tiger’s Lair”. This is the place where Padmasambhava meditated and later emerged in 8 different forms hence, this place is of great historical importance. The monastery is situated in the Paro valley at a height of 10,240 ft.

We set off from Thimpu in the morning at around 7:45 a.m (We planned to leave at 6:00 am but our driver literally said that he does not wake up early and so we had to start later). At 9:00 am we reached Paro, had our breakfast in a small café and reached the base of the trek at 9:30 am. The mighty monastery perched atop a steep cliff intimidates you. But, it is one of the most spectacular sights you will ever see. Although it seems formidable, there are a number of access routes. Our driver said that it would be a 4 hour trek and that his personal best was 1:30 hours to the top. You can take a ride on the back of a donkey that will take you almost up to the top or can just trek your way up.

There is a pretty well defined trail and at a steady pace it would take you about 2 hours to reach the top. My friend and I were quite disappointed that there was a defined trail as we expected a difficult adventurous trek. So, we wandered off the trail to define our own path to the top. At about midway there is a village temple and a cafeteria. You can sip your coffee in full view of the monastery. We also got lost but do not regret it at all because we found ourselves at the priest’s house. These quarters are situated opposite to the monastery and at a higher ground.

We then made our way back on to the path, the path is lined with prayer flags and paraphernalia for worship. There are pine trees in the surrounding and you can hear the pleasant sound of a waterfall. The large water fall, drops 200 ft into a sacred pool and is forded over by a bridge. The bridge is a flight of stairs that first descends down the ravine and then ascends towards the monastery entrance. Even though we got lost we eventually made it to the monastery in 1:30 hours.

The monastery has 4 temples and residential shelters. There are eight caves present. All the buildings are interconnected through steps and stairways made out of rocks. There are a few wooden bridges that have ridges to place your feet and help you cross over the rocks. The caves have a number of images of Buddha. Oil lamps are seen flickering in the foreground of the idols, while the soothing chants of the monks echo in the air. The entire setting makes you feel that time has slowed down.

Tips to get the best out of your Taktsang experience:

Get here early in the morning: The timings of the monastery are: 8am – 1pm and 2pm – 6pm. If you plan and start the trek at 8am you will be able to beat the crowd and have the amazing view all to yourself.

Take in the view: Photography is not allowed inside the monastery premises so make sure you take as many pictures as possible on your way here.

Do not keep this for the last day: It is always better to have an extra buffer day as the weather is unpredictable and could ruin your trek.

Follow the dress code: Wear full sleeves t-shirts preferably with a collar and also avoid shorts. The monastery guards are strict about the dress code and would not let you inside. I had to borrow a scarf to enter the monastery as I wasn’t wearing a collared t-shirt.

Carry food and water: Carry atleast 2 liters of water and some energy bars to keep yourself fueled.

JOURNEYFUEL 2: CCIR CYRUS GURUNG

Follow the link to know who do I refer to as JourneyFuel!

Ccir Cyrus Gurung. A professor, a great host and a traveller! I was planning a solo trip to north east India and Bhutan.  Darjeeling was first on my list. I was looking for cheap reliable accommodation as I was on a tight budget. While scrolling through homestays on Airbnb, I came across the profile of Ccir. He had a ton of positive reviews from travelers all over the world. I messaged him and the plan was on. Ccir helped me plan the rest of my trip as well even before meeting me. He had a number of students who were from Bhutan. So, a lot of my cross border travel was made very easy thanks to him and his students. Just a week prior to my arrival at his house my friend said that he would be joining me. Ccir without hesitation, agreed to accommodate him as well.

My friend and I arrived in Darjeeling on cold rainy evening at around 730 p.m. Ccir came to receive us a few minutes away from his home. His home is not very obvious on the street and there were no street lights as well. We finally got to his house. His house is one room that he shares with a different person almost every day. This is because of the demand of him as a host on Airbnb. He has one entire wall covered with pictures of travelers he has hosted. The other wall has notes stuck to it. He makes every person that he host’s write a message based on their experience. Ccir then took us out to eat at Glenary’s Bakery and Hotel Penang.

The smile that Ccir has is just so welcoming. He is an amazing person and is well traveled in the north eastern part of India and Bhutan. He loves Darjeeling; you can say this by the way he speaks about the place. His knowledge about the history of Darjeeling and the places to visit is vast. Ccir took us around Darjeeling at night on his bike while explaining the significance of each place on the way. We stayed with Ccir for only a night but we shared a lot of our stories and are still in contact with each other.

 

WHITE SAND AND CLEAR BLUE WATERS – KOI PHI PHI LEH

Koi Phi Phi Leh is an Island in the Andaman Sea. It is situated in the Krabi Province of Thailand. Koi Phi Phi Leh is made up of very steep limestone hills and two mystical bays; Maya Bay and Losa Ma Bay. The ring of limestone hills act as a cradle to Maya Bay. The pristine blue waters and the pearl white sand will give you a feeling like you are in paradise. Maya Bay can be accessed only by small speed boats because of the shallow waters.

Maya Bay has become very popular among tourists since The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio was filmed here in the year 2000. Koi Phi Phi Leh is one of the stops of the Phi Phi Islands tour package. I would suggest you take the package that takes you around in a speed boat. I went with the Ocean Mania Tour Company, their service was excellent and our guide Leo was an amazing entertainer.

The continuous influx of tourists makes it impossible to get a picture of the beach without people in it, which is quite frustrating. When you make your way to both the ends of the beach, you will find that due to the waves the limestone has eroded and there are cave like formations. The ends of the beach are not too crowded and can be utilized to get some amazing pictures.

Down the middle of the island there is a path that leads into the woods. The intertwining roots of the trees are mesmerizing and picturesque. Beyond the woods you reach a flight of wooden stairs. You have to be careful of the moss on these stairs. The last thing you want to do is fall just before witnessing something spectacular. At the top of these stairs is a viewing platform that overlooks a huge rock in the center of Losa Ma Bay.  This rock which is in the middle of the sea, has a rope ladder that people climb onto and dive into the sea. You just can’t get enough of the crystal clear blue waters.

The entire Phi Phi Islands tour costs around 1400 Baht by speed boat and 800 Baht by ferry. Koi Phi Phi according to me deserved an entire post dedicated to it because of the way it enchanted my senses. I will post in the future on the remaining `stops of the Phi Phi Island tour.

Also read about my experience at Urbanpod Mumbai: India’s first Pod Hotel.

 

JOURNEYFUEL 1: PIYUSH JAIN

Follow the link to know who do I refer to as JourneyFuel!

I was at the Kanteerava stadium in Bangalore on a solo trip to watch the Indian national team take on Oman in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Oman, the clear favorites in the game were leading 1-0 with an early goal. All of us fans were very vocal; chanting and cheering our boys in blue, then a breakthrough in the 26th minute. Sunil Chettri from the edge of the box turned towards goal and took a shot right into the top corner sailing past the mighty Ali Al-Habsi. The entire stadium erupted in joyous cheer. Out of instinct I turned to my right and hugged a fellow fan. This fan was Piyush Jain.

After the feeling of having just scored against one of the best teams in Asia mellowed down, (It did not completely sink in, even now I get goosebumps remembering that goal) Piyush and I started talking. It was like we have known each other for years on end. He was so welcoming and a really great listener. After the game, (which we sadly lost 2-1) he offered to take me to a Café for dinner. We went to Truffles on St. Marks Road. Piyush is a crazy biking enthusiast and a graphic designer by profession. He told me that he also loves to travel and sets out alone whenever he can. He has completed almost all of south India on his bike. After dinner he took me around entire Bangalore city (Bangalore at night feels like another city altogether without the traffic).

Piyush is a wonderful storyteller, he will keep you engaged with his narratives in such a way that you will always be asking for more! We spoke about life, travel, people and still felt that we could go on and on. Both of us shared the motto, No amount of money can buy you the experiences that you get through travel. Not knowing whether we would meet again we exchanged contact details and as he dropped me off at my hostel, I thanked him for the hospitality he provided me with.

You never know how soon a person can enter your life and leave a lasting impression. Don’t think twice before you greet a stranger, you might just make a friend for life. Piyush is still a very good friend of mine. We met again during the football game of India vs Iran and then a few months ago we went backpacking  across northeast India and Bhutan (Stay tuned to the blog for posts on this trip).

WHO IS YOUR JOURNEYFUEL?

My urge to travel is fueled by the desire to meet new people. Staying with local, indigenous people, interacting with them and breaking bread with them gives me first-hand experience of their customs, culture and beliefs. It is also heart-warming to see how locals in remote villages are one with their terrain.

I have come across a number of people who have left me with the thought, “I hope I meet this person again somewhere down the road”. I call these people JourneyFuel! Just when during your travel you are out of energy and you suddenly meet a person who lights up your mood, those are exactly JourneyFuel. These people enhance your travel experience and keep you on the edge of your senses always asking for more. These are people who make you think about “What is it that I really want from life?” and urge you to “just calm down and relax.”

JourneyFuel stay with you long after your travels and turn them into memorable experiences!

JOURNEYFUEL 1: PIYUSH JAIN

JOURNEYFUEL 2: CCIR CYRUS GURUNG

This post will be updated with links to posts about people who have been memorable for me. Do you have any such people you call JourneyFuel? Let them know how they made your travels memorable. Share your story in the comments below. You can also tweet about them using #JourneyFuel.

 

18 MUST KNOW TRAVEL HACKS BEFORE YOU SET OUT

Whether you are setting out for a weekend trip or a month long journey, these travel hacks will make your packing easier and organised while saving you a lot of time.

1. Create a To-Do List

Did I get the passport? What about travel insurance? Have i packed my favorite pair of socks? Avoid all the last minute running around by maintaining a handy To-Do List. This list will help you keep a tab on all things packed and what is to be packed.

2. Make Google Translate Your Voice

Are you travelling to a destination that does not speak a language you know? You need not worry about communication. Just download the language pack of that destination on your phone through google translate. It also helps you communicate with the help of text-to-speech conversion.

3. Set up Google Maps Offline

Just in case you do not have access to data on your trip you should download the map of the place you are going to visit. Google maps lets you access your saved maps offline with all the navigation features.

4. Reduce Book Weight in Your Luggage

If your are a fan of printed guide books, try and take a photocopy of just the pages that you need. For your novels and guidebooks if you switch to ebooks and use an ebook reader you can save on a lot of space.

5. Make Your Camera Look Old

Certain places you travel to might require you to be extra cautious. You do not want to end up getting your expensive camera stolen. It is advised to hide the camera logo and model number with black duct tape. Brown duct tape placed at other random places on the body of the camera will make it look used and worn out. This will avoid unwanted attention.

6. Roll Clothes Instead of Folding Them

When you fold clothes and pack them for long duration it leads to formation of creases. To avoid creasing you should roll your clothes and place them in ziplock bags. Doing this, you will free up a lot of space in your bag and also the clothes will be easier to find.

7. Pack Your Shoes Smartly

Avoid staining your clothes with your shoes by packing them in shower caps. You can stuff your shoes with items like socks or other cosmetic filled tubes, this will help you make optimal use of space.

8. Prevent Your Liquids from Leaking

Cover the nozzle of the tubes containing the liquid with cling film before putting on the lid.

9. Place Your Toiletries in a Ziplock Bag

10. Storing Valuables in an Organised Manner

Ever found yourself looking for A missing ear ring? Or Have you been worried about where to store the cash? Do not worry, first of all start by storing small ornaments in pill boxes. You can also use empty chapstick tubes to store ornaments or rolled up notes. By doing so, you will know where what is kept and won’t waste time searching later.

 11. Protect Powder Make Up Products from Breaking

Place a cotton pad in the compact box before placing it in the bag.

12. Pack Minimal Cosmetics

Fill up contact cases with cosmetics, as a result you will save the space of carrying along bulky tubes and bottles.

13. Have a Copy of All Your Documents

Email yourself copies of your passport, travel insurance and other documents that you will be carrying along with you because you never know when it might come in handy.

14. Carry Extra Plastic Bags

Always carry extra plastic bags of different sizes. They can be used either as a bag for soiled clothes or various other purposes like shopping, throwing trash, protecting your devices from water and so on.

15. Carry a Purifier Bottle 

If you have not used one of these you should. The personal purifier bottle comes with a interchangeable filter. This is useful for your trips where you do not know how hygienic the water is. You can refill these bottles directly from streams or lakes and also from public drinking sources without a problem. You do not need to spend on buying new bottles of packaged drinking water and as a result, you cut down on a lot of expenses.

16. Weigh Your Luggage

Airlines will always try and add their hidden baggage fees to make a quick buck. Therefore, you should always keep in mind your baggage allowance and stay under the limit. Consider wearing the heavier clothing it will help reduce the weight.

 

17. Make Your Suitcase Stand Out

There is a chance that the person next to you picked up the same suitcase back home at the end of season sale. The last thing you want is a carousel crisis at your destination. Make your suitcase identifiable by tying colored ribbons on the handles or by sticking labels on the case. This will save you the pain of double checking your bag before taking it off the carousel.

 

18. Pack Your Daily Bag Efficiently

Make sure you carry a handy backpack for your daily use. Keep your valuables and a pair of clothes in this bag. You could also keep a few toiletries in this bag. This bag will save you last minute panic just in case your check-in luggage is delayed or misplaced. Carrying this bag around town will be much easier compared to carting along your suitcase.

 

 

Hope these travel hacks are of good use to you. Please do let me know in the comments if you have any other hacks that can help your fellow travelers minimize effort. Happy Travels!

TRAVEL MAKES YOU A BETTER PERSON

Before I started travelling, I was someone who would think twice before engaging in a conversation with a stranger. Now, after a few short trips that has completely changed. Travel is a wonderful teacher! It’s only when you get out of your comfort zone that you realize what you are capable of. For instance, during my travels in Sikkim, my friend and I gelled really well with our driver. We stayed the night at his friend’s house (a complete stranger!) after being caught up in a landslide. Travel makes everyone a more amazing person.

So what does travel bring out in you? Let me highlight a few qualities:

 

Open mindedness

We’ve always been told  as kids, “Don’t talk to strangers”. I would say, “Do the exact opposite! When on the road, talk to as many people as possible. Travel definitely breaks stereotypes. By talking to people you will make new friends, learn about different cultures and most importantly, realize that the world does not always judge you. You will stop being conscious of every move you make. You will empathize better. A friend for a lifetime might just be a “Hey” away.

 

Being minimalistic

When you travel you will realize how little you really need to survive. You will meet people who own much less than you but are very content and happy with their lives. Once you are back home you will start valuing the small things in life, the experiences. And of course you will spend most of your time trying to figure out a way to escape again!

 

Adapting to change

You will face landslides, floods, delays, unruly co-travelers – the list goes on. After a while, you get used to such situations and you deal with them like a champ. You become more patient and calm, qualities that will stand you in good stead all your life.

 

Better at socializing

When you travel alone or with friends to new destinations, meeting and interacting with people is a given. You talk to strangers for directions, for information, or just for the heck of it!  Even if you are an introvert, over time, you start enjoying this. You also get adept at small talk and master the quickest way to get to know a person. You will find engaging in a conversation will be much easier than the time you felt nervous to say “Hi” to a mutual friend.

 

Following your heart

Often we think a hundred times before doing anything and later regret not doing it. I was at Khaosan Road in Bangkok, where I came across a street vendor selling fried scorpions. I was dithering with the usual ‘should-I-shouldn’t-I’, but I knew I might never get such an opportunity again, so I just went ahead and ate a SCORPION! When you travel, you will face many situations that will make you think twice. Do as your heart says as there might not be a next time.

 

Knowledgeable

You will speak to a myriad of people, experience different cultures, visit exotic places. You will know how different people are and the way people behave. This knowledge is hardly attained through books. Only travel will teach you this.

Travel simply makes you a happier person. You will be more confident, outgoing and witty. You can either sit at home and just think about going to your dream destination or you can just pack and leave. It’s all about being there. The choice is yours.