A Travellerspoint blog

May 2011

Thailand...a busy few weeks!

sunny 32 °C

Our flight to Bangkok went like a dream and we landed in the early hours of the morning sleepy but excited to see a new country and experience a different culture!

Coming out of the airport was like a shock to the system. So accustomed to India, jumping into a modern, plush metered cab was strange to us. It was about 5am and as the city slept we gazed out the window of our taxi as we noted the smoothness of the roads, contemporary buildings and bright lights. We headed to the famous Khao San Road (famous for its backpacker hotels and loud bars) in search of a place to call home for a few days. As we made our way down this famous road, rucksacks on our backs, sleepy eyed and tired, there were a handful of bars still open and a few hardcore party goers still larging it and dancing in the street!

I immediately realised why this place was so well known amongst fellow travellers; the whole street is geared up for the backpacking, beer drinking, party going backpacking people, with numerous bars, hotels, currency exchange kiosks, and street stalls selling knock off designer gear and beer branded t-shirts! That said, at 5am, the only thing we wanted was to get our heads down for some sleep!

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Over the course of a few days, I started to discover what Bangkok is all about. J having been here many times before, set about showing me around, taking me to the key places and introducing me to my very first whisky bucket. That was my Bangkok baptism of fire day!

We befriended some local Thai's who ran a small street bar, this led to them doubling the strength of our whiskey buckets of which there were many and later a group of us piling into a tuk tuk heading in the direction of Patpong! The latter half of the night was a bit of a blur but I do recall the tuk tuk ride home as a bit of a white knuckle ride with the driver doing wheelies along the road as the flashing lights in the interior of his tuk tuk mesmerized me through my whisky bucket haze! A great night out, a hangover from hell and a lesson learned about the hidden strength of those whisky buckets!

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Being in Bangkok was a sensory overload! Bangkok was filled to the brim with super modern shopping malls in Siam, the streets everywhere bustling with people, street food vendors whipping up Pad Thai, colourful tuk tuks and day glow coloured taxis. Bangkok had a great buzz to it and I loved it!

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We did the obligatory tour of the Grand Palace which was so beautiful with all its grandeur and opulence. It was such a difference from the sort of architecture we had seen in India; everything glittering and shimmering in the sunshine.

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Next, we checked out Wat Po, a famous temple with its giant gold reclining Buddha.

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Wat Po, aside from its temple status is also famous for it being the mecca of traditional Thai massage; we decided that this was a good place for me to have my first Thai massage. I thought I knew what to expect and was really looking forward to it.

At first it all seemed to be going swimmingly; lots of pulling, stretching and kneading, but when the lady came around my back as if to perform the Heimlich maneuver I did wonder what was to come next. A few seconds later, as she hooks her arms under my arm pits, swings my whole torso swiftly to the right the sound of my entire backbone clicking fills the room! I let out a scream from the shock; nobody told me that was going to happen! Before I knew it, she then swung me to the left and pop, pop, pop there goes my spine again! Wow! Double shock.
My reaction to which was to start laughing nervously (I do that with pain...dont ask me why!) I have a pet hate of the sound of people even cracking their knuckles (it goes right threw me!) and so this to me was like that but in super technicolour! What had started off as a nice relaxing massage had somehow turned into a white knuckle ride and before the ride was over however, she managed to get hold of my head and give that a good old swing too; yes left AND right and the sound of my neck cracking filled my ears as I was suddenly desperate for this experience to end.

Thankfully it did end shortly after and trying not to seem ungrateful I thanked her, paid her and got out of there pronto! I make it sound like hell, it really wasn’t but to me cracking bones has the same effect on me as someone scratching their nails on a school blackboard; it makes me feel funny! So if you like a good bone crack, then Thai massage is the one for you!

Before we left J took me to see Chatuchak weekend market (apparently the biggest market in Thailand and I'd believe that too!). A bus journey away, we arrived to see masses of people swarming in and out. The market had everything you could imagine. Hundreds of stalls selling all sorts like clothes, shoes, shades, belts, lamps, jewelry, furniture, traditional crafts, original pieces of art…you name it! Lots of stalls had stuff that was handmade and if we had room in our backpacks I would have had a field day in there! Well worth a look in if you are ever heading home via Bangkok!

While we were in Bangkok, we fell upon a major demonstration by Independence monument. At first we couldn’t work out what it was all about, but as we waded through the sea of people wearing red shirts the penny started to drop. For as far as the eye could see there were people filling every square inch; there must have been tens of thousands of people there. Everyone there was wearing red, some with banners, and some with slogans on their red t-shirts. We stopped at one place where they had set up a stand. It was here that we saw photographs of a previous demonstration with people who had been injured and killed, lying bleeding on the floor, some already dead. The stand was appealing for the justice of those who had died there in the violence (90 people…last year) and for the release of a group of anti-government protesters.
I wasnt sure at the time if it was appropriate to photograph there so for the purposes of this, I have found a photo on-line to illustrate.
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We realised that this was probably not the best place for us to be, particularly as there had been trouble at these demonstrations before and with the sheer volume of people and the fact that many were drinking heavily, we felt that it would have made for a dangerous place if this turned violent. Keen to get out of there quickly, we realised that there was no quick way out and we had no choice but to wade slowly through the crowds until we found a way through. It took us about 20 minutes to reach a clearing and though the demonstration was peaceful and in actually in most parts we saw people smiling and singing, we knew that it was good to get away. As our luck would have it, this was not the only time we found ourselves wading through a red shirt demonstration; having come back through Bangkok again later in our Thailand trip, it happened again!

So after our first stop in Bangkok we headed north and spent a few days in Chaing Mai where we did a Thai cooking course which showed us how to make Pad Thai, Red curry, Penang curry amongst other Thai dishes. A fun day learning to cook some seriously good food! First we took a trip to the local food markets to check out all the fresh foods, followed by some serious chopping and cooking!

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I found Chaing Mai to be a chilled place with a far more relaxed place compared to Bangkok. It is also where many travellers then head out on various treks in the surrounding regions but we didn’t fancy that as J had done this a few years before and mentioned that his trek to the ‘authentic’ tribal villages had been a bit of a non-event when he got there to find that the traditional wear the kids in the tribe wore consisted of a Manchester United football shirt. We did however find out about a great place for traditional wood carvings, about 20-30km from Chaing Mai where we bought and sent home two beautiful wall carvings for our flat back in London.

We were going to head to Sukhothai to check out the ancient temple ruins but opted instead to check out Kamphaeng Phet as this was the lesser known of the two sites so a little less foreigners milling about. Beautiful crumbling Buddha’s in peaceful surroundings, it made for a lovely relaxing day.

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The town of Kamphaeng Phet had little to see or do and there was a simple town with a smattering of local restaurants’. With little going on we grabbed dinner and started to walk back to our guest house. On the way back however we saw a little place with blacked out windows with music coming from within. Curious to know if there was any fun to be had in this quiet town we ventured inside. Call it naivety if you will, but it took a few minutes to work out that we had just stepped into a karaoke bar where every male guest gets his very own female host. Aside from the fact that as a couple we stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the typical male only clientele, we had a fun night chatting away to our host and applauded her efforts at karaoke!

From there we knew we wanted to head towards the islands, but east coast or west coast first? Decisions decisions! We heard that Ko Tao was one of the cheapest places in the world to get the PADI diving qualification so we decided that if we did that sooner rather than later, it might open up some diving opportunities later on, so that made up our mind and we headed to the east coast and over to Ko Tao.
Ko Tao was four days of diving and that was about all. We felt that the place was a little overrun by really young backpackers (man, that makes me sound really old, doesn’t it!) and being surrounded by loud bars with pumping music into the early hours wasn’t the vibe we were looking for, so we got down to the business of getting qualified.

Ours was a small group of four; me and J and a lovely couple Dylan and Liv who were also taking some time out to do some travelling around Asia. Our first lesson, in a swimming pool taught us the basics of breathing using the gear and the signs to use underwater. So far so good! Though after three hours in a tepid swimming pool on an overcast day had us all shivering like nobody’s business and we were glad to get back into dry clothes!

Day two, some class work in the morning swatting up on the theory stuff and then in the afternoon we went out on the boat and did our first real dive!

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With mild nerves and a whole bag of excitement, we each plunged into the water with our masks on, air supply strapped to our back and our fins on our feet, looking like the real deal!

At first, the feeling of breathing through the regulator (the contraption you pop in your mouth) was just plain odd and at first found myself breathing quickly and a bit panicky. As we descended down the anchor rope popping my ears to try and regulate the pressure, the peacefulness of the water and the little fish near the surface helped to calm my breathing and before I knew it, it didn’t feel so strange at all.

As we descended deeper, all I could hear was the sound of my regulator taking in air (sounded a bit like darth vador in star wars!) and the bubbles leaving it as I breathed out; it felt almost surreal but so calming seeing the fish swim around my goggles…it was incredible! J looked in his element too, exploring the coral and marine life around him. That said, the waters were heavily populated with little jellyfish and no matter how hard we tried to avoid them, their long tentacles stung every bit of exposed skin including our faces! Thankfully as we descended deeper the jelly fish thinned out, but by the next day I was covered in red itchy welts where I had been stung (strangely J didn’t have that reaction).

Coming back up, that first dive site was in choppy waters and where we came up was a fair old swim back to the boat. Tired from the dive and me not being a very strong swimmer, I found the swim back difficult and as I grew weaker I started to panic when I saw that I was on my own as nearly everyone was back at the boat. Thankfully Dylan and Liv realised I was struggling and came back to help me. It was a bit embarrassing getting a tow back to the boat (especially as I also managed to get cramp in my foot just as I was trying to get out of the water) but I was just glad to make it back. Despite that set back, I got right back in there for the remaining dives and by the end of the four day course and four dives under our belt, we both were hooked and knew that we’d be diving again soon. A great experience and one that we celabrated with a cheeky drink with our diving pals!

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Next stop, Koh Phangan. Known for its full moon parties, we decided to see what the island was like when it wasn’t full moon. The boat trip over was a soggy affair as dark clouds came in, the heavens opened up and the rain came down. We docked at the main area (Haad Rin) but decided not to stay there to avoid the main tourist beach. So we took a tuk tuk to the north west part of the island to a beach called Had Mae Had. Being a gloomy day, the beach was a wash out which was a shame as the beach itself was lovely with a little sand bar leading to a small island just off the main beach. The beach was chilled with only maybe three resorts of beach bungalows. We stayed in the one at the far north of the beach nearest the sand bar where we had a beautiful view.

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Now it was just a case of waiting to see if the weather improved. We had one glorious day, and the beach was stunning on that day. It lifted our spirits no end but we soon came to realise that the few people staying on this beach were middle aged families with kids; no backpackers in sight. Despite it being a beautiful beach, it just had no vibe and with the rains returning in full force the following day, we decided that we would move on in search of better weather!

So with that in mind, we skipped overland to get to the west coast! We picked Ko Lanta as neither of us had been there before and it sounded good in the guide book. As our journey progressed the weather started to really improve and we were in great form!

We found a lovely little bay just south of long beach called Relaxed Bay. It was very pretty and we decided that this would be a good place to plot up for a while. We managed to find a very basic but clean wooden beach bungalow for 500 baht a night and was happy enough with that and to top it off there was a cool beach bar with young backpackers’ right where we were staying. We thought we’d found the right vibe in the right location. Perfect…or maybe not.

The bar was laid back with good tunes and even the token fire dancing guy! The only problem was the guys running it had a sound system that could have been big enough for the O2 arena! The bass line was booming every night until 5am and our lovely beach hut was only yards away. Sleep? No sir, that was not an option. We were gutted...especially as the place just next to us (a chilled out restauraunt and basic beach hut place called Strandbaren) had the most AMAZING Thai chef! So after 4 sleepless nights, the bags on our eyes were bigger than the weekly shop at Sainsburys! So with no possibility of escaping the endless noise we had to leave.

We thought that we had found a good alternative, about 10 minutes away in a place that had these beautiful but pricier huts further up the beach. With thatched roofs, they looked like mini hay barns and these were set back from the beach so we were encouraged by the temptation of a good night sleep ahead of us!

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Very picturesque but what I didn’t foresee was the necessity to be at one with nature if staying in one of them. I was ok about the fact that the gaps in the floor boards were big enough for any large insect to crawl through. I was even ok with the fact that the windows in our little barn had no glass so were just open spaces…and would let in the mozzies at night (we had a large mozzie net after all so we’d manage). But I couldn’t have foreseen that with a thatched roof, comes little things that make their home in the hay which I started to get a bit squirmy over and in my state of extreme tiredness my imagination ran wild and J woke up in the middle of the night to find me on the verge of tears mumbling something about bugs falling from the thatched roof onto the bed. He didn’t look too impressed about his sleep being disturbed yet again and basically told me to pull myself together and go to sleep. It’s funny when I look back now, but at that moment it didn’t seem funny at all!

The next stop on our Thai tour took us to the region of Trang Islands. This is a group of islands on the far south west coast of Thailand and were seriously stunning! The most beautiful group of islands we had seen yet. Even on the boat approaching Ko Muk, we were blown away by the amazing limestone islands jutting out of the crystal clear blue/green tropical waters.

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It was picture perfect! Ko Muk itself was a tiny little island with the main bay with only two bungalow resorts on the main beach and a couple of other cheaper options further up the hill in the jungle. A bit pricier than Ko Lanta, Ko Muk was much quieter and more relaxing. The island seemed to cater for a mix of people, some of which were families taking a two week break, as well as the odd backpacker. The vibe was chilled and besides the fishing village on the other side there wasn’t much else going on.

The bungalow we chose was basic but a great location and great view. Ours was one of only two that were concrete built so we thought that this would keep the bugs out. An ambitious notion and one that was unfounded. The first morning, as I made my way to the bathroom, still sleepy and hazy I plonked myself on the loo. In a flash, I saw a big (and FAST) spider run around the lip of the toilet bowl, only out of sight as it passed under my legs! As I screamed and leapt up mid flow (sorry but its true), the spider managed to jump from the loo to the side of the sink. Not only was he quick but he could jump too! Too much for me to comprehend so early in the morning, it was left to J who had been woken by the sound of my surprised squeal to deal with the matter (which he did thankfully!). Aside from that, there were no further bug related incidents there! (Phew!)

The food here was simple but good and besides the nightly beach BBQ, we found ourselves hooked on the local Thai rice soup. It was at one of the local restaurants that we discovered this cheeky little monkey (the restaurant’s pet) who seemed to take a real liking to me!

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We had read that round the side of the island of Ko Muk, there was a hidden sea cave that opens out to a beautiful little lagoon with its own beach which legend says was used by pirates to hide their stolen treasures, so we knew we had to check it out. Accessible only by sea, there were various day trips we could join that would take us there but we had heard that it spoils the experience as they pile 50+ people into this small lagoon. So we decided that we would hire a kayak and time it so that we got there after the day trippers had been and gone.

We paddled our way around to the entrance of the cave, which took about 40 minutes, tied up the kayak and started to swim through into the darkness. As we swam deeper into the entrance we saw that there were two small tunnels, both pitch black. If we had a waterproof torch we could have taken our chances but in the absence of any source of light we were worried that we’d end up lost and chickened out on going any further. So now we just had to wait by the entrance of the cave and hope that someone else also had the idea of coming later in the day.

Our luck was in as five minutes later we saw a group of four come along on a small boat, once of which was a local with a head torch! They were happy enough for us to tag along as they navigated through the darkness of the tunnel, which as it turned out was about 50 metres long. Together we swam with the little torch guiding our way, in hopeful expectation. As we made our way round the corner we were taken aback by the stunning beauty that unfolded before us. Wading through from the darkness of the cave, we observed the beautiful green vegetation growing up the jagged walls of the cave, all the trees and vines brightly lit by the sunlight that shone through from the opening at the top, some 50 metres above us and the light dancing on the lapping water as it hit the little sandy beach before us. It was stunning!

I had to pinch this from google as we didnt have a waterproof bag or camera with us!
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Back on Ko Muk, we discovered a great little diving company called ‘Chilled out divers’. Aside from the cool name, the guys that worked there were really friendly and had a wealth of knowledge of the local dive sites and before we knew it were booked ourselves onto a day trip to go diving to a place called Ko Rock. Over a few beers we got introduced to the rest of our group that would be coming out with us the following day. A great mix of personalities and genuinely nice chatty people, we were really looking forward to it.

The following morning we set out on their traditional Thai long tail boat, with all the diving gear ready to go. The journey to Ko Rock would take us an hour or two, so we spent the time chatting to our group and getting to know them. Margaret and Louis and their friends from Portugal, and Claire and Rob from the UK were all very well travelled and the time flew as we talked about various places in world.

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Once at the dive site, we all strapped on our gear and got ready to start our dive. So much more relaxed than when we had done our course, no skills training to do or new things to remember, it was a simple case of getting in there and just enjoying it. As soon as we descended into the water we knew we were in for a treat. The water was amazing with great visibility and schools of brightly coloured fish all around us as we swam down. Coral reefs that were full of life and colour, we could get up close to see so many things; graceful hawsbill turtles, moray eels, lion fish, cornet fish, sea stars, and clown fish to name a few! It was a technicolour of sea life and it was nothing short of amazing!

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To rest for lunch, we brought the boat round to the beach on Ko Rok where we sat and enjoyed some food and snorkeled round the shallow bay. In a clearing just behind the beach we saw three big monitor lizards that seemed to be enjoying each other’s company and obviously not bothered by us spectators. Amazing creatures!

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We had heard from Margaret and Louis (who were on our diving trip) that the island directly opposite Ko Muk, called Ko Kradan had a beautiful beach and was well worth checking out. We weren’t due to get back on the road for a few days, so we decided to jump on a long tail boat and go check it out too.

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We got a bungalow set back from the beach set in a lovely garden. We shared our bungalow with a mysterious gecko (who we never saw but he always left evidence of his visits by leaving his little gecko poo trails behind) and a cute but shy little frog who would come into our bathroom at night.
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In addition to their accommodation, this place was also famed for their American style cheese burgers! (The divers in Ko Muk would often come over just to eat dinner there!) And after five months in Asia eating traditional Asian food; the odd occasion where you can get western food done properly was always worth a try and we were not disappointed!
We stayed there two nights but had to move for our last night as they had booked out our room to another guest (we weren’t best pleased about that one as they sprung it on us at the very last moment!), so we went down to stay in the beach bungalows that Margaret and Louis were staying in. At 1500 baht a night (about 30 pounds), this was the most we had paid for a beach bungalow and though not big bungalows, these were what I would call more upmarket than the average bungalow, with comfy and clean beds, almost hotel style bathroom and French doors to a balcony to a sea view. A nice treat for one night and as it was valentine’s day too so we decided that it was worth it. Ko Kradan was worth the hype. It had the most beautiful beach of all the islands we had stayed in and it wasn’t overdeveloped, though this was not so much a backpackers' island in my opinion (perhaps more of a ‘flashpackers’ place?). Though you could find some cheaper places to stay, many were fairly upmarket and some of the beachside bungalows were verging on opulent with a couple of the restaurants attached to them were serving very expensive food and wine.

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While we were on Ko Kraden, we learned that it was also famous for its Valentine ’s Day diver’s weddings. Apparently each year, a bunch of people don their diving gear and say their wedding vows under water. We hoped that we could observe this crazy concept from the side of the beach but we missed them. What a shame…I was curious to see if the bride was dressed in white! Talking of Valentine’s Day, Margaret left a little present on our balcony, some lovely perfume and creams. It was such a lovely gesture and I was over the moon to have some perfume (as mine had run out a long time before that!)

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The next day, we said goodbye to Margaret and Louis and headed back to the main land to the town of Trang. A little bustling Thai town a few kilometres from the coast, this little place had very little in the way of tourist sights but had a nice feel to it. The people of Trang were really very friendly, the kind of Thai friendliness that both J and I remembered from our previous visits to Thailand some 8-10 years ago. In Trang, we felt that we were given a very warm and genuine welcome. People wore that famous Thai smile and were keen to help us find our way. It really put a spring in our step!

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We decided to venture afield and got talking to a helpful lady who told us about Le Khao Kop Cave that were about 40km away. In this cave we could see stalactites and stalagmites and would pass through small tunnels in a little boat. It sounded interesting so we hired a scooter and decided to check it out. The ride along the highway was so windy, we were holding on to our helmets! Coupled with the fact that this place was not easy to find, we were glad when we finally found the place! Our hard work was rewarded though, as we got on board the little fiberglass boat, we were taken into the beautiful cave where we saw the various shapes that the stalactites and stalagmite’s had created. As we got to the final part of the tour the tour guide told us to lay flat on the floor of our little boat as we ventured into this small tunnel deep within the cave. It seemed to go on and on, getting tighter and tighter as we went. At one point we had to turn our faces to the side and breathe in just to get past some of the tight spots! It’s funny now but there were a couple of times when the boat got stuck and I did wonder if we were going to make it out of there at all!

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That night we too the overnight train to Bangkok, having booked the AC sleeper. Wow, what a nice way to travel! We had plenty of experience doing sleeper trains in India but this was so much nicer compared. The cabins were clean, the bunk beds really clean and comfortable and best of all, there was a dining carriage that served hot food and cold beer. The dining carriage was ace! The waiters and waitresses were dancing to the music which was kicking out of big speakers, serving people with beers, whisky and various Thai dishes. What a stark contrast to the Indian trains! You couldn’t help but smile and join in on the fun!

Our time in Thailand had come to a close, six weeks had passed quickly and we had undoubtedly seen some of the most beautiful beaches and incredible natural beauty, but a part of us compared our time with the previous trips to Thailand and longed to go back to the time when you could easily find your own slice of untouched paradise. A time when backpacking was cheap and it was easy to find like-minded travelers. Thailand will always be beautiful and special, but we could see how many places have over time had changed through mass tourism and we felt a tinge of sadness as we said our goodbyes.

Posted by Eveness 05:54 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches trains islands cities diving thailand bangkok cooking chaing_mai monitor_lizzard koh_rok emerald_cave Comments (1)

North India - The whistlestop tour of the golden triangle

Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur...from warmth to bitter cold and men who sells zips on trains!

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

So with a heavy heart we left our friends in Goa...back to Margao train station to face the normal chaos we had grown accustomed to when travelling in India. Thankfully we already had our ticket but as soon as we arrived, we realised that our train was showing as 4 hours late...wounder!!!

Our attempts to get Dave onto our train were unsuccessful so we said goodbye to Dave who was on the next train after ours and agreed to meet up at the other end. Our train finally comes and we fight through the crowds, dodge the families with what looks like their entire worldly belongings set out on the platform and weave through the food hawkers and bundle ourselves onto our designated coach...and we're on! Phew! So far so good!

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Settled in our cabin this would be home for the next 28 hours...or maybe not! Somewhere along the route, I'm not sure at which point, it seemed that everyone knew that this 'express' train was no longer going to be doing much in the way of expressing itself to Delhi. I'm still flummoxed as to how they knew (as there was no announcement to say so) but they did; every Indian on that train knew though nobody could tell us how much of a delay we could expect! We had no idea how long this train journey would end up taking so we had no choice but to just accept that it will take as long as it takes!

Our train cabin 'roomies' were an older Indian couple, who spoke very little English so despite a couple of confused attempts at making chit chat, conversation was a little thin on the ground which was a real shame especially as this was becoming an epic journey! And in fact, come to think of it, they didn’t talk to each other all that often either, nor did they read a book or occupy themselves with anything. They simply sat and chilled, ate or slept. Staggering! They must have been bored to tears!

But come to think of it, in nearly every train journey we had taken in our time in India, it was very rare to see the locals entertaining themselves with books or papers. They seemed to have an amazing ability to just sit and be still no matter what length of journey!

As we headed further north, the landscape started to change. We noticed fields that reminded us of England and we noticed areas which had denser populations and families literally living next to the tracks in small one room houses, some of them in no more than a simple shack. As we got closer and closer to Delhi, we saw that people seemed to be dressed in heavier clothes; we knew that it was colder in the northern areas but nothing prepared us for the reality of it. By the time we were getting ready for our 2nd night’s sleep on the train, our cabin started to get really cold and we were rubbing our hands to keep warm (Dave was in a train just behind us and he said that the non AC train was even colder due to all the windows not shutting properly and him not having any blanket! He actually lost the feeling in his feet during his journey!).

We were about 30 hours into the journey and naturally by then we were starting to get a bit of cabin fever. Our eyes had gone blurry from hours upon hours reading of our books and we were running out of movie on the netbook (I think we'd have gone stir crazy without the movies!) ; even conversation was starting to running dry...we surely hadn’t got long to go now?!?!??
Time seemed to stand still for a long time, and after a 2nd night on the train, over 2000 miles covered, and if you count the initial 4 hour delay...it was nearly 40 hours later when we finally stepped off our train in Delhi!

We arrived into Delhi at about 7am as the day was just beginning. As we stepped off the train we were hit by the cold like a slap in the face! It was FREEZING!!! We were a few kilometers from where we needed to be so it was a taxi or a rickshaw ride away. With the cold biting away at us we were intent on getting a taxi with 4 doors to keep the cold at bay but it was not to be so we piled our backpacks into a little open sided rickshaw and braved the elements! It was a low point in our Indian rickshaw experiences to say the least! We had trousers on and long sleeved tops but nothing like what the temperatures required and still donning our flip flops the cold numbed our sad little exposed toes in minutes!

So got to the main bazaar street to where most of the backpacker hotels were and tried to find a room. Thankfully we found one without too much difficulty and to look at it was pure luxury compared to anything else we had stayed in in India, but like us it was not quite so equipped for the cold and didn’t have any heaters. Favouring a quality mattress and upmarket décor we simply decided that we would don some elaborous sleep wear at night. It was not a pretty sight I can tell you! (both of us opting to be fully clothed, me donning two pairs of trousers and hat and gloves to bed!). We soon warmed up and the joy of having a big and soft mattress made it all worthwhile!

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We had a couple of days in Delhi before we were due to meet up with Dave and Suza to head to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which gave us time to apply for our tourist visa for Thailand so we spent our time taking in some sights around Connaught Square and doing some shopping. Being back in a bustling Indian city after such a long time in Goa was a rush to the senses and seeing the bustling market stalls and rickshaws flying past was like seeing an old friend (perhaps as we knew it was our last week in India it made us a little nostalgic too). People had warned us about Delhi saying it would be a shock, but for us it wasn’t so. I think once we had come through Mumbai back in September and seen many chaotic towns and cities along our travels, this was no big deal. In fact, parts of the city such as Connaught Square with grand colonial style buildings, expensive restaurants and the little park in the centre we really liked!

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Soon it was time to head to Agra. We agreed to try and get the 11:30am train from New Delhi train station and to meet Dave and Suza on the platform. We got there ready for the journey, wrapped up in as much clothing as possible. I felt a bit like a stuffed toy but determined not to let the cold dampen my excitement of seeing one of the wonders of the world. The journey wasn’t supposed to take too long but again once onboard we experienced delays and to make things worse, as we got closer to our destination, it got colder still. But we kept our spirits up as J and I spent the time getting acquainted with Suza.
As per the normal rule of thumb on the trains, we had a plethora of chai and coffee wallers coming up and down the train, people selling samosas, veg cutlets, biryani’s, crisps, biscuits, water, cans of coke, sprite….and even a few people trying to sell us zips. Yes, zips! A very niche market but these guys would have every size zip you could imagine! Not the whole zip though, just the bit that goes up and down. The zip man looked at each of us and pointed out any old looking zip on a jacket or bag and suggested that it needed replacing. 10 out of 10 for originality, but I didn’t see him make any sales, poor bloke!
We eventually rolled up at Agra in the afternoon, again the train having been delayed on route and we went in search of a room. We had heard that Agra wasn’t much to look at and as we walked through the town, we could see why. For a place which has such an amazing sight as the Taj Mahal, the surrounding town was a bit of a hole!

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The guest houses were also pretty basic and pretty cold too but we got something that was clean and with a hot shower though again we found that it was impossible to get a room with heating. It was getting so cold now that were wearing practically everything we could get on. Five layers of clothes and still the cold was getting through! We really couldn’t believe our bad luck and was astonished as to how cold it was. The restaurants were mainly outdoors but thankfully ours had a little fire lit to keep us warm when we ate and even better they had Galaxy branded hot chocolate which went down a treat! Result!

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We asked the locals if these temperatures were normal and they said that every year from during the first two weeks of Jan, they have a very cold spell after which time it goes back to reasonable temperatures where you can wear simply a t-shirt or shirt. It was just our luck that we were travelling the north from 5th to 11th Jan (or perhaps just terrible planning on our part)!

So that evening we kept it simple and decided that a rickshaw to our chosen restaurant would be all the wandering about we wanted to do. The restaurant was recommended in our guide book but a few kilometres away so it meant another freezing rickshaw ride! All four of us piled in (j up front with the driver) we headed off. As the rickshaw gained speed the wind really started coming in hard on our faces, coupled with the heavy blanket of mist which made visibility almost impossible; we started to wonder if this was such a good idea! Thankfully our rickshaw driver knew the roads like the back of his hand and got us there in one piece! And despite the numbness in our hands and feet, the trip was worth it as the food that night was really good and well worth going out of our way to get there.

That night it was a challenge to keep warm in bed and again wrapped up for the long cold night ahead! It was becoming a source of humour as we’d be once again donning our hats and gloves for bedtime!

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The next morning, hesitant that the fog and mist would make our visit to the Taj Mahal a disappointment, we decided to not go there too early and hope the skies would clear. Decked out in our multiple layers we took the short walk to the entrance. Looking around for where to purchase tickets, we discovered that the ticket office was some 2km up the road. Why they decided that was a good idea I’ll never know! So bemused, we all made the journey up the road to get our tickets. The only good thing of it being that it got the blood circulating and I think for a moment there I actually started to get some feeling back in my toes! Thankfully the way back was made easier by the free electric bus they had to ferry customers back to the gates and grateful for this small mercy we hopped on!

We agreed for a local guy to be our tour guide, a humorous chap who was quite likeable. Once through the gates, and the Taj was in view we saw that it was shrouded by mist, we were a little disappointed but our guide continued on giving us various snippets of interesting information such as:

  • The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in the memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal after she died in childbirth with their 14th child.
  • Apart from being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
  • The Taj Mahal build costs in today’s money about US $100 million. It took 22 years and 22,000 people to complete. The grave of Mumtaz Mahal is located at the lower chamber, while the grave of Shah Jahan was added to it later.
  • Four minarets rising to a height of 162.5 feet surround the 213 feet high central dome.
  • The four minarets of the Taj Mahal were built at a 2-degree angle so that in the face of any natural calamity like earthquake the minarets surrounding the dome would not fall and destroy the dome but would fall away from it.

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By the time we walked halfway through the beautiful gardens of the Taj, the skies cleared up and before us was the glistening white structure in all its glory with beautiful blue skies behind it. Glimmering in the sun, it stopped us all in our tracks; amazed and in awe. This was certainly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and would totally recommend anyone to go and see it. Well worth the entrance fee!

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We felt glad we had made the effort to visit and afterwards while munching on some tasty samosas from a street vendor we headed to ‘Happy Day coffee Day’ shops (J's favourite coffee shop!) to get some tea and coffee to warm us up. It was just outside there that I bought a little key ring from a local boy who was making silly faces through the window, including his personal favourite pose the 'inside out eyelid pose'. That alone was worth a souvenir purchase!

With no time to loose (and no reason to stick around in Agra) it was back to the train station once again to get the train to Jaipur. Again, more delays (which was apparently due to the cold and mist) we stood on the cold platform while sun set. We waited on the platform, getting progressively colder as the minutes turned to hours; our hope and circulation draining away with each passing minute. We met another couple from Norway on the platform and befriended them. They had not long started their India journey and were somewhat shell shocked at their experience so far…a feeling I remember only too well when we first got to India! So we invited them to stick with us as we waited patiently and it chatting to them helped the time to pass. We also made friends with a little Indian girl of maybe 8 or 9 who was clearly a street child, giving her what sweets and snacks we had and any loose change. Wearing a raggedy dress and no shoes, she was upbeat and skipping about despite the bitter cold.

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Eventually our train did come and we hopped on and found a carriage and in the process met a lovely young Australian girl who was travelling solo. At only 18 years old I was impressed with her courage, but I suspected that it was more her sweetness and naivety which made it easier for her. With her tales of endless male attention and invites to drink chai and swap numbers we could see that it was water off a ducks back to her. We’d heard many a story from other lone female travellers about being harassed and groped and we worried about her and tried to warn her to be a little more cautious. Anyway for this trip, we all had each other which was good because a 4 hour journey turned into 6 and with the onset of night, the temperatures dropped again and we were huddled up to each other to try and keep warm. Everyone shared stories, played cards while also sharing snacks, spare jumpers, scarves and the sleeping bag which we draped across everyone. And as the night wore on and we got progressivley colder and more hungry, we realised that this was the first time we’d been on an Indian train but had seen no chai wallers or food wallers. It broke all the laws of Indian train transportation!!! Having had no dinner, we were all starving so when we pulled into a station, the lads all jumped off the train in a mad dash to find some sort of food for us. Not knowing how long they had, it was a race against time but they came back with an assortment of snacks for the group just as the train started to pull out of the station! They guys were legands that night! What should have been a miserable journey turned out to be a good laugh and one which we'll always remember fondly.

We arrived into Jaipur at about 3am and we all said our goodbyes to our Auzzie friend who was staying on. So me, J, Dave, Suza and our two new Norwegian friends made our way out of the train station. Opting to walk rather than get a rickshaw (not sure why we did that…I really don’t!) we started to walk towards the road which we read had a few hotels. The walk, though not really far felt much further, perhaps due to us being tired and cold; passed through the main highway. It was on this walk that I started to notice how many people were sleeping rough under the raised carriageway. Under the haze of the street lamps, there were a sea of sleeping bodies hidden underneath blankets and I was amazed at how many people were there, young and old and over the two days that we spent in Jaipur this was something I saw again in street doorways and pavements. I asked a local rickshaw driver why this was, and he said that people from the surrounding poor farms, come to Jaipur hoping to find work but many are forced to sleep rough as they have no-where else to go. It was sad to see and something which stuck with me about Jaipur.

On a happier note, it was Dave’s birthday while we were there and we planned on spending our day doing some sight-seeing followed by dinner in the revolving restaurant that evening. We met up for breakfast at the local ‘Happy Day Coffee and made plans for the day. It was here that we met a local guide who was more than a little charismatic! He offered to show us around in his rickshaw for the afternoon for a reasonable price and despite the aroma of booze on his breath (I know…perhaps this is a bad idea!?!) , we agreed to take a chance on it and see what the amusing man could show us.
His first job for him was to take us to a good restaurant for the birthday boy’s birthday lunch, and on route he stopped off to buy Dave some birthday flowers! How kind!

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His first task started off well as we dined on some very tasty food in a very pleasant looking restaurant, toasting to Dave's birthday, munching on some very nice tandoori chicken and rice. That said, just as we were finishing up, our drunk guide staggered into the dining room smoking a cigarette much to the annoyance of the restaurant manager. Stinking of booze and smoking out the restaurant, we suggested he should extinguish it, and he did….right in the mint dip on our table. Shocked and nearly speechless we realised that he was not just drunk but rude too! Embarrassed and bemused, we told him to wait outside before he caused any more trouble. Back in the rickshaw, we wondered if we should cut this guy loose; and by the time we got to the pink city, his drunken slurring and pushy ways were really starting to becoming too much to we said a curt goodbye there...with him behind us slurring something about "f**king tourists!" I guess there was no love lost there! As J put it, there is only one word for that guy….”RAGGO!”

With him out of the way, we could start to enjoy our day and took a slow walk round the pink city and into the palace grounds. The streets of Jaipur were hectic and somewhat in your face, but as we got closer to the palace everything became much calmer and even more so once in the palace grounds. It was outside the palace that was saw a snake charmer; the one and only time we had seen one in the four months we had spent in India! The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the palace grounds, enjoying the peace and serenity.

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The evening arrangements were to head to the well-known revolving restaurant near by. Me and J headed there via the coffee shop where we had a chocolate birthday cake reserved for Dave’s birthday. We arrived at the restaurant and went to the bar to wait for the others, where we enjoyed some cocktails and masala peanuts (and Dave and J favourite appetizer). The meal in the restaurant was really great. A totally veggie place that did really tasty dishes, with night views over the city and an in house band playing, it was a great setting. The band played an Indian happy birthday song for Dave and the restaurant staff brought out the cake with a candle lit on top. A nice touch for his birthday meal!

With a new dawn, it was time to get back on the road once more. We said goodbye to Dave and Suza and headed back to the train station for our final Indian train journey. I would like to say that it was on time, but yet again it wasn’t (it turned out that a strike as well as the cold front was the cause of all these recent train delays; which made sense as the previous 4 months train travel had been pretty much on schedule) and so because we had a flight to Thailand to catch the following day we decided to scrap the train and get a bus to Delhi instead. Pushing past the masses in the train station, we saw the counter for the refunds and the people in a scrum to get to the front. Never one to find an orderly queue in India, the only way to get service is to adopt the attitude, 'when in Rome, do as Romans do'. So we waded through and pushed and shoved and elbowed our way along with everyone else fighting to get service at the counter. Madness! It was in this scrum/queue that J was told by a local that he didn’t have a right to be at the front of the so called queue because he wasn’t Indian! Determined not to be put off, J stood his ground and we managed to get our refund. The good news is that the bus we got left on time and got to Delhi in reasonable time and in the process we didn’t freeze to death so we were two happy bunnies!

Even in the airport the following day, we witnessed the funny ways of Indian people. Waiting in a queue (a proper queue, one person in front of another) in WH Smiths (yes they do have them in Delhi airport!), we saw an Indian guy look at the queue, and then look at the cashiers. Then deciding that the queue didn’t apply to him, he just jumped to the nearest cashier and tried to pay. It was hilarious to watch as he was promptly told by the cashier to get to the back of the queue. He looking totally confused and bemused but not deterred, he decided to just try another cashier and then another, before eventually admitting defeat and joining the back of the queue! It was like watching a fish out of water and made us laugh as our parting observation of India!

Our 4 months in India had come to an end. It had flown by and it brought with it a myriad of experiences and memories, good and bad but most definitely worth taking time out to explore. A country of contrasts is the best way to describe India, with so many situations you could easily discover a world of opposites…the contrasts of wealth and poverty living together in Mumbai, politeness and generosity of the lovely families we met on the trains compared to the rudeness of the scamming rickshaw drivers in Mysore, the serene peaceful beauty of the Keralan backwaters and unbearable noise pollution of the chorus of horns honking main towns and cities; honesty and corruption living in apparent harmony everywhere we went; the examples are endless. India is a place where you go to discover their culture, good and bad, like it or lump it; and despite the challenges that we faced we look back with smiles, remember the funny stories that shaped our journey and are glad we experienced it all.

Posted by Eveness 09:13 Archived in India Tagged train delhi jaipur taj_mahal agra cold rickshaw tour_guide snake_charmer Comments (0)

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