Bengal pictures, Rural Bengal, Bengal countryside

“Romance with the innocent charms of Rural Bengal. Have a lazy morning tea, walk around the local villages, play with children, spend an evening by the rice paddies or tea gardens and end the day with a platter of home cooked fish and rice”

Rajasthan pictures, Rural Rajasthan, Rajasthan countryside

“Hike or Bike. Find your own way around Bundi Countryside and discover the tribes in their natural habitat co-existing with cattle and green pastures. Explore historic rock paintings and erotic temples”

Assam pictures, Rural Assam, Assam countryside

“Across the mightly Brahmaputra lie the origins of Neo-Vaishnavism in India. Spend few weeks with the 40 Vaishnavite sects of Majuli Island

Rajasthan pictures, Rural Rajasthan, Rajasthan countryside, Jodhpur

“Skip Jodhpur, explore the nearby villages. Experience the innocent Smiles from Rajasthan, play with children, have spicy food, sleep under the stars, go for a morning walk and discover an ancient sea bed”

Bhutan pictures, Rural Bhutan, Bhutan countryside

"Drive into a sleepy Last Shangri-La and spend a week with the worlds happiest people, find precariously perched monasteries and soak your feet in the emerald waters of Paro Chhu. Love Bhutan."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Party in Bangkok and get lazy in Hua Hin

When I shared with friends that I am visiting Thailand for Thailand Happiness Street Festival, I got the cliche response - "So you must be going to Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya". I was surprised to know that no one knew about Hua Hin, not even those from travel industry. Having visited Thailand couple of times, I understand the sense of hospitality in each and every Thai national and without even seeing Hua Hin on internet I was sure that it is going to be something interesting.

Hua Hin is one of the upcoming destinations that is very boutique and has tastefully built its attractions. It is a well known place for that rich Indian community that flies off in charter planes for a marriage ceremony in international destinations.

About Hua Hin: It is the summer destination of the King of Thailand and a very peaceful place as compared to the party atmosphere of Bangkok or Pattaya. It lies about 193 km south of Bangkok in Cha-am district. Usually it takes about 3 hours by your own vehicle. It is a weekend destination for the rich Thai community that likes to own a private sea facing villa.

If you are flying to Thailand, here are some of my recommendations for Hua Hin. Don't worry! they will suit every pocket size -

Damnoen Saduak floating market: Thailand and most of South East asian countries are in close proximity to water bodies and have extensive canal systems. In those times, merchants, vegetable, meat and fruit vendors sailed into the backyards of the houses to sell. Due to extreme tourist interest in floating markets, most of the people have now started selling souvenirs in boats but many still continue to sell fruits, thai food that they cook on the boat, meat and flowers. Damnoen Saduak floating market in on the way to Hua Hin and about 95 km from Bangkok in Ratchaburi province.

Best time to visit: 7 am - 9 am

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market | Photographer: Michael Babcock | Image Source: www.thaifoodandtravel.com
Thailand floating market
Fruits and Vegetables | Image Source: www.bangkokfreeday.com

Khao Sam Roi Yot national park: Thailand is brimming with numerous national parks most of which are in the north. This is one is barely 50 km south of Hua Hin in Pran Buri district. Due to heavy rains, I took a boat to the national park but regretted missing an alternate route which has a dense forest on one side and gulf of Thailand on the other. I recommend spending at least a full day here and visiting the Phraya Nakhon Cave followed by some self pampering at Laem Sala beach.

Laem sala beach
Laem Sala beach


Khao sam roi yot national park
Phraya Nakhon Cave | Image Source: www.bangkokbeyond.com

Visit Santorini and Venezia theme parks: Thai are skilled at dazzling the guest with creativity. As the name suggests, Santorini and Venezia theme parks literally transport the person into Greece and Italy. Only difference is that the people serving speak Thai.

Santorini theme park welcomed me with the typical shades of white and blue with fairytale shops that I would see in actual Greece. The theme park is about 34 km from Hua Hin.

Santorini theme park Hua Hin
Till the time I fly to Greece how could I miss this opportunity
The Venezia theme park welcomes me with its Italian pastel colors and a Thai version of St. Marks Campanile (Campanile di San Marco). Here are some snapshots from the 3D museum that made us do some unbelievable tricks and the gondola ride.

3D museum venezia hua hin
Mischief at 3D art gallery in Venezia
Venezia Hua Hin | Image source: www.compasshospitality.wordpress.com
Splurge in the luxury resorts of Hua Hin: Even the resorts are built with a lot of love. That's why two of them actually made me fall in love. While Amari - Hua Hin offered some stunning views and pure luxury, Six Senses Resort and Spa transported me from a modern life to a forest where the only sound was that of birds, raindrops and insects.


 

Six Senses Spa


***

Amari, Hua Hin


Cicada night market: I haven't seen such glorious night market elsewhere as I have seen in Thailand. The Thai tourism definitely knows how to present a concept beautifully. When I walked into the Cicada night market that was hardly 400 mtr from Amari, I was amazed not only by the food but the ambience as well as the atmosphere. I will leave you with some photos of the market and hope that next time you put Hua Hin in your itinerary. Leave a message for me when you are back. I would love to hear your experience.





Disclaimer: All the views above are out of my own experience. The information given above is subject to change over time.
The trip to Thailand was in association with TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) and Thai Airways

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Gaurav Bhatnagar

Gaurav Bhatnagar

Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, my work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Alternative

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Phraya Nakhon Cave - The mysterious beauty

We climbed into three multicolored boats from the mainland of Hua Hin and set off via the Gulf of Thailand towards Khao Sam Roi Yot national park from where we will trek through the forest towards the Phraya Nakhon Cave.

In contrast to the safety concerns of many travelers post military coup, Thailand is as safe, friendly and welcoming as it always was. Few days back I attended the Thailand Best Friends Forever festival in Bangkok where I couldn't help but fall in love with the people who had gathered.

"Thailand is as safe, friendly and welcoming as it always was"

Back in the boat while sailing towards the national park, the sky is overcast, yet I am excited for the adventure that lies ahead. After a short trip we land on the golden and seemingly untouched Laem Sala beach. Since this is monsoon season, only few tourists are on the Island making it even more exotic and mysterious. I would have stayed on the beach gazing far into the sea and had done some mind poetry had my guide Joey not called out saying "Chalo Chalo" (Let's go). He is quick to have picked up few Hindi words from us.

How to reach Khao Sam Roi Yot national park: It lies in the Prachuap Khiri Khan province and approximately 50 kms from Hua Hin. One can drive up to the park in own vehicle or hire a cab from Hua Hin.

Sailing towards the Khao Sam Roi Yot national park
Directions for the National park from Hua Hin
Hua Hin has recently sprouted as one of the exotic destinations of Thailand where I am left charmed by the countryside cottages that I can hire. The cottages are beautiful, comfortable and available all for yourself. I definitely plan to come back to Hua Hin with my partner and hire one of these for few weeks. The cottages are available between THB 300 to THB 3000 per night depending upon how exotic its location is.

Cottages for hire in Hua Hin and Khao Sam Roi Yot National park
The trek to entrance of Phraya Nakhon Cave from beach is approximately 1 km with trekking of medium difficulty level (probably high difficulty level for smokers). Thailand tourism has thoughtfully put markers in the forest to guide the trekkers as well as filled the gaps in rocks with mortar to prevent tourists from slipping during rains.

We walked through the beach and into the forest
Trekking in the forest. Difficulty level: Medium
Halfway across the trek on the mountain, I feed my eyes with the view of Gulf of Thailand that is dusky right now due to overcast weather but bursts into stunning colors during sunshine. To know more about Gulf of Thailand [Read: Gulf of Thailand]

Gulf of Thailand | Image Source: www.fotopedia.com
Another 30 minute walk brings me to a deep plunge where I climb down into a huge cave that suddenly appears in the middle of a forest. The sounds of forest are replaced by a silence that is only broken by the echoes of a handful of tourists.

I have to climb down flights of stairs to reach the bottom. On the way, I see many stalactites and stalagmites that have joined at various places. However due to climate change, some of these once magnificent creations of God have dried up.

About Phraya Nakhon Cave: It was named after a ruler who discovered it approximately 200 years ago while taking shelter from a storm. The cave is made mainly of limestone with skylights above. Suns rays that enter the cave through these skylights give it a mysterious and silent aura. Rainfall into the cave through these skylights have resulted in the growth of trees adding to the charm of this place.

And finally I am gifted with the prize when I set my eyes on the Tetrahedron Pavilion that was ordered by King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V). This pavilion was built by hand in Bangkok and assembled in the cave by skilled workers.

The Tetrahedron pavilion
Basic Information:

Entry fee to Khao Sam Roi Yot national park: THB 200 (for foreign nationals), Free for Thai nationals
Ticket of long tail boat to Laem Sala beach: THB 150 per person
Distance from Hua Hin: 50 Kms, 50 min traveling time

Disclaimer: All the views above are out of my own experience. The information given above is subject to change over time.
The trip to Thailand was in association with TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) and Thai Airways

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Party in Bangkok and get lazy in Hua Hin

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I am a Housewife and a Mountaineer

Surrounded by the dim light of an oil lamp, I am sitting in a kitchen looking at how 'Roti' (Indian bread) are made on firewood. The lady dressed in an Indian sari is telling me stories of how the people in Munsiari, a remote village of Kumaon have taken up community based tourism for sustainable development. The kitchen cat climbs on my feet and we listen to the story together. The woman says…

“Once upon a time, Malika and Theo, one of whom is from Punjab and another from Kerala traveled to Munsiari. At that time, no one knew about this village on Indo-Nepalese border beyond which the Indian roads end into Panchchuli mountain range. They chose to live a life in service of our community. Ram joined them afterwards with his expertise in fragile Himalayan ecosystems and sustainability”

Homestay India
Stunning view of Panchchuli mountain range from the homestay
Homestay Rural tourism india
Munsiari village sits at the base of this beautiful Panchchuli mountain range
“Malika madam took the position of head of 'Van Panchayat' (Village forest council). Over next five years, 'Maati Sangathan', a women's collective was formed. It enhanced local governance using our skills like Organic Farming, Bee Keeping and weaving from Yak wool. It trained women in operating computer, on managing finances, provided low interest loans and trained women in mountaineering to serve Rural Tourism.”

For the scenic beauty of Munsiari, [Read: Celebrating Holi in Kumaon]

Organic farm produce and white Yak wool | Image Source: www.sruti.org.in\
Women's collective rural tourism india
Women of Maati Sangathan | Image Source: www.sruti.org.in
Responsible rural tourism india
Village folk and tourists celebrate festivals together enhancing intercultural interaction
Rural tourism india
Women cooking Indian snacks for everyone during Holi festival
"We were educated on how forests, farms, animals, humans and environment co-exist, and on how deforestation results in migration of wild animals into villages and subsequent destruction of farms. The women who had not thought of the environment before in this way joined hands to regulate entry of humans into the forest and on cutting wood.”

“Under the homestay program, we were trained on aspects of intercultural sensitivity and interaction. We were made aware of the importance of sanitation, our cultural heritage, on having conversation with travelers, and cooking food to suit all types of visitors. Two decades ago, we were just farmers forgotten by our own government and trying to make our ends meet. Now we are entrepreneurs who know the importance of our skill. We are very thankful to madam. Few women were chosen for training in mountaineering from HMI (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute) who now take travelers like you for activities like high altitude trekking, star gazing and exotic bird watching.”

"Our homestays follow similar standards for bedding, food, water supply, toilets and have solar power. Some even have attached kitchenette for those travelers who want to cook"

A newly build homestay owned by a local family
A 80 year old house in traditional Kumaoni architecture transformed into a homestay

Introduction video of the movement and how it diversified into community based tourism -

video

I listen in awe, not realizing that the cat on my feet has not moved an inch as if she is also a part of our conversation. I go to sleep that night excited to meet a village woman next day who will take me for trekking.

Next morning, I am ready and a little impatient when someone knocks on the door. I open it to see the lady who cooked for me last night wearing trekking suit and shoes. She looks at me, smiles and says – “Yes, I am a housewife and a mountaineer.”

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Celebrating Holi in Kumaon


Co-Authored by Gaurav Bhatnagar & Lajwanti Naidu

Gaurav Bhatnagar is a Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Responsible Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, his work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Alternative

Mrs. A Lajwanti Naidu has Masters in Tourism Management and English. She has International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Universal Federation of Travel Agents Association Foundation (UFTA) certification. She has post graduate diploma in Tourism and Travel. She has eighteen years of Industry and Academic experience. She has attended many National and International seminars.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Story of 'Time'

A small boy is lying on the marble floor flat on his stomach while his feet are in the air swinging back and forth. He is watching a long queue of ants crawling right beside him towards a crack in the wall. Few ants wander off in another direction but find their way back. Some of the ants are carrying crystals of sugar back to their homes. The rain outside the boy's home has now reduced to a drizzle with remaining drops of water falling from a tree in the courtyard into the puddles of water below creating a distinct splashing sound.

It has been almost two decades since then. This is just one of the ways I used to spend days doing nothing but observing elements of nature and creations of God. I travel a lot and often, I only write about the place. Today, through some of the serendipitous moments I experienced while observing people and living a slow life, I share what I 'Un-Learnt' about Time. (See: How to live a slow life as a traveler)

From a quite corner in Paris
The Story: While sitting in a cafe in Paris for early morning coffee, I saw this woman across the street feeding the birds from her hands. The tiny birds who were hiding in the bushes flew in, picked up the grains from her hands and quickly flew back. Towards my right was the Eiffel Tower with hordes of tourists getting their photos clicked. Somehow I found more pleasure in watching this woman spend time with the birds while the sweet aroma of caramel from my Irish coffee made my eyes a little droopy with happiness.

While watching her, I remember the busy life I have left behind for a week where I have stopped calling anyone sans for a reason. A life where I do not know when I wake up, go to office and work until night. This was the longest vacation I had back in 2008 when, for the first time I started shifting from being a tourist to a traveler.

Photographer: Padma Madipalli
The Story: There are many lesser known temples in the countryside of Bundi (See: Bundi - A Rustic Legacy), Rajasthan that are centuries old. When I found one such place in Bijoliya last year, I saw that for the village children it was a playground where they spent hours swimming together in a fresh water pool in the temple complex that was once probably used by priests. The sun was setting and gentle wind was blowing across the village. The children constantly called me to jump in with them but I chose to sit on a shelf and watch them live their life.

A day before I had done a marathon 500 km drive from Delhi and my basic instincts still asked me to be on the move. I rather chose to switch off my phone that was ringing and watch these children.

White temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand
The Story: It was drizzling when I alighted from the bus in front of the White Temple in Thailand. While everyone rushed to the main entrance to get in, I found this father-daughter duo beside a pool outside watching fishes. The daughter was amused and giggled at every move the fishes did and the father just sat beside her joyful in her happiness. Although I did not understand their language but I stood there watching this girl jump around. The fishes also seemed to experience the love because all of them gathered near her.

Being a city dweller, when I sometimes call up people, I am amused to see the lack of time we have for a conversation. The calendars are usually booked to the brim and conversations are almost always for a reason. Last time when I called a friend for no reason, we actually had nothing to talk about.

Local village life in Cambodia
The Story: While I bicycled around the Angkor Archaeological park in Cambodia (See: Getting around Angkor Archaeological Park), I ventured out into nearby villages deliberately to get away from tourists. I heard squeals of laughter from behind as two bicycles zoomed past me. The girls looked at me, smiled and said something in Khmer that I did not understand. I waved at them which made them even more happy. I also gave them slices of pineapple that I was carrying in my basket.

There was a time when I wanted to tick off every country in this world. However, now I want to spend quality time wherever I go and let's see how many countries I ultimately visit in my lifetime. Now I want to spend time getting close to the people I meet, get to know who they are, their food, languages, customs and hospitality. I believe it is more about the number of people whom you remember and want to be with rather than a checklist. I want to just lie down and see the row of ants crawl back to their home again.

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Gaurav Bhatnagar

Gaurav Bhatnagar

Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, my work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Alternative

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Untrekking to Druni Taal

"Please inform your family that you will be out of phone range for the next 4 days with no connection to the outside world", our instructor Yog told us while we loaded our backpacks eager to be trekking through a forest, a moraine and a glacier for the next 5 days.

Moraine: Glacial debris comprising of rock and soil that forms in currently or formerly glaciated regions. ~ Source: Wikipedia

I had been eagerly waiting for this journey for the last one month. It is the first time that I will be camping at high altitude with similar freaks who have come from across India in different shapes and sizes. A three hour bus ride from Pathankot brought us to the Salli village where we have our base camp. I am amazed to see how beautifully the village is setup on the countryside as if someone has painted the huts and step farms of wheat on a canvas.

Rural Travel India
Huts in Salli village - Clicked from the forest
Rural Travel India
Houses were mostly built in a similar fashion making the village even more beautiful
While Delhi is melting under the summer heat, the Dahuladar mountain range overlooking Salli village is covered with snow. A distinct chill always accompanies me while I trek on day one to get myself acclimatized to the altitude and prepare for the main trek.

How to reach Salli: An overnight train from Delhi takes you to Pathankot from where buses run to Salli village every three hours.

Rural Travel Himachal
Base camp in Salli village
Travelling with Junoon Adventures Eco Tours was an amazing experience as we always felt taken care of and like a family. After two days of rest and acclimatization, we head off towards camp one. I am excited to be trekking through a forest. For the first time I came to know that trekking, when done in groups, involves a lot more than walking in uneven terrain and camping in a forest.

We had to be sensitive towards the wildlife, plants and use water judiciously. The backpacks were usually shared by buddies for half an hour each and each one was accountable for the safety of self and that of the people around him. We even collected the waste left over by earlier trekkers so that the trail is left cleaner than before.

Trekking Tip 1: Always swirl small amounts of water in your mouth for about 30 seconds before drinking it. It is an effective way to save water by quenching the thirst with less.

Trekking through the village and into the dense forest ahead
An hour of walk brought us to a clearing. We had left the village and its step farms behind. The wheat farms are now replaced by giant white boulders with the river Khauli flowing below. The weather is quite unpredictable and it has now started raining. We cover ourselves with our ponchos and keep walking towards the forest.

My tired lungs burdened with the smoke of metropolitan I live in dance with pleasure as they take in the cold unadulterated mountain air.

Trekking Tip 2: Carry minimum weight in the backpack and always find a flat surface to place your foot on. It increases the efficiency of walking by almost fifty percent and reduces the strain on calf muscles.

Trekking in Himachal
Leaving the village behind we trekked into the forest
The countryside beyond the forest is formed of meadows for as far as my eyesight can see. We often cross the sheep and goats from nearby villages chewing the grass vigorously while a couple of dogs always guard them from any threat. The shepherds often stay away from homes for weeks grazing their cattle and live in the makeshift stone shelters made all over the meadows. Their dogs guard the cattle at night from bears, hyena and sometimes wolves.

Although the dogs are guardians of the sheep, they come to us with their tail wagging and tongue hanging out. We can't help but pat them on their head which they thoroughly enjoy. I love moving my fingers through their soft and thick fur while they closed their eyes in happiness.

Trekking Tip 3: The wild animals like bear or hyena do not attack humans unless they feel threatened. Do not flash torches or show stick to them

Trekking in Himachal
Makeshift stone shelters for the shepherds in the meadows
Rural Travel Himachal
The sheep and goats from nearby villages
The mountains fill us with an energy that make us walk for great distances on rocky surface without getting tired. We walk on narrow rocky edges with mountain on one side and a deep valley on the other. Far ahead we can see the snow covered mountains and dark clouds over them. Thunderstorms and lightening always thrill me and I am excited to get close to it. As the sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, a gentle mist settles down in the valley making the meadows and coniferous trees look like creations of water color.

The phone signals are long gone and I have also lost track of the day or date. The feeling of being lost in time with no connection to the man made world can only be experienced once you are in it. Birds, rivers, trees, grass under my feet and fresh air are going to be my gadgets for the next couple of days. I don't mind giving up my urban connections for a life in these mountains.

Trekking Tip 4: Do not sit for extended period of time. Take short breaks and keep walking.

Trekking in Himachal
Like an artists creation with water colours on a canvas
After two days of walking and a pit stop in the forest, we reach camp two. The wind has picked up speed so much so that two of our tents were blown away by its force. I lie silently in my sleeping bag and look towards the top of the tent from where a fine beam of light is coming inside. I am getting goosebumps by the way our tent is shaking in the wind. If I close my eyes, my experience would not be less than camping in the arctic. Chattering teeth by the howling glacial wind add to the excitement.

On top of the stomach full of breakfast every morning, we are served finger licking lunch, soup, tea, snacks and then dinner at short intervals. I wonder that by the end of this trek, whether I will loose weight or gain it. It is a bliss rolling frozen fingers around a steaming cup of hot and hour soup with the steam from it gently condensing on my nose tip.

Trekking Tip 5: An alternate to wearing thick and heavy woolens that add to overall body weight is to wear multiple layers of thin cloth. The warm air trapped between the layers keeps the body at apt temperature and the overall body weight light.

Rural travel India
Camp two - The howling winds added to the excitement
Rural Travel India
This cow took a break from eating grass and gave a nice pose for the camera
We are blessed to be travelling away from the hustle and bustle of a tourist hub where we probably wouldn't have gotten space to enjoy what nature has to offer. Living in Salli village and trekking through the forests with no sign of any village or habitation within miles really made us get up close with the nature and take in the experience in its purest form.

Rural Travel in India has recently picked up pace with increasing number of travelers preferring to go off beat and see India in its true colors. The concept of responsible tourism and sense of contributing back to the local place is also picking up especially among the youth. Rural tourism is not only a way to experience the place in its original form but also contribute to the local communities by helping them preserve their culture, religion, art forms, architecture and handicrafts through tourism.

Trekking Tip 6: While trekking on narrow mountain trails, always walk on the mountain side and avoid the valley side. Cattle that graze in the mountains tend to use the valley side.

Rural Travel India
Always walk on the mountains side
We skipped Druni Taal due to adverse weather conditions and headed off to a glacier on the final day before descent. I missed seeing a mountain lake but for the first time walked on a glacier. We slipped, fell, walked on thin ice, slid from the top, and had oodles of fun. The thirst to explore was never ending and even after reaching the glacier my mind wondered what lay beyond them.

The Himalayas are home to many exotic species of birds. One requires immense patience to spot and click them in their various moods. While I preferred to click more of landscapes and human expressions, some amazing photographers in our group captured these beauties.

Source: www.junoonadventure.in
Trekking on glacier
Source: www.junoonadventure.in
Before I started with the trek, a friend told me that the mountains clear up your mind and transforms you from within. Over the last ten days, I have left many fears and inhibitions in the mountains, and indeed, I have come back as a changed man.

Travel with me on Twitter and Facebook

Gaurav Bhatnagar

Gaurav Bhatnagar

Travel Writer, Photographer, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur in Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com. As a travel writer, my work is published in The Hindu, Huffington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Alternative