Heritage Elephanta, India

With a fascination of exploring heritage structures especially in India and revisiting history , it took me decades to visit an absolutely awesome place so close to Mumbai. We have toured around various parts of India and abroad visiting places with ancient history but like they say “Ghar ki murgi dal barabar’, inspite of being an Mumbaikar (a term we born and bought up in Mumbai love to call ourselves ) it never did occur to visit a place so close to our city brimming with history and heritage.

Elephanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site . Located on Elephanta Island or also known as Gharapuri they are about 11 kms northwest from Gateway of India. The island has a coastline of 7 kms with two hillocks seperated by a narrow valley . The island has three small villages Raj Bunder,Shet Bunder & Mora Bunder which are still inhabited by people .

Travel : Elephanta Caves can be reached by the daily boat service operating from Gateway of India . The ferry service starts at 9 am and the last ferry from Elephanta is 5.30 pm. The travel lasting for 45 mins is quite smooth and comfortable and the sea gulls hovering around the boat waiting to be fed with tidbits make the journey enjoyable

Sea gulls encircling our boat enroute to Elephanta Islands

Our colony club had arranged for a one day picnic to this beautiful island . We had heard that it would be a 120 steps climb to reach the caves and would be tedious. I was very apprehensive on hearing this but the love for exploring heritage places won the battle raging in my mind and after seeing the magnificent caves , there was not a moment of regret. Though the steps leading upto the caves are built of stone, they are quite broad and not very steep . Both sides of the steps are lined with stalls selling clothes, costume jewelry, artifacts cold drinks, eatables so stopping at stalls admiring the items on display made the climb very easy

Our Colony excursion group

The Elephanta Caves are a collection of cave temples predominantly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.The Main cave is an unusually large excavation supported by rows of massive pillars which rest on a square stone base.

On the left of the main entrance is the main sanctum enshrining an Linga and with four doors on either side having Dwarpalas or Doorkeepers . There is a big fair held every year during Mahashivratri . The island was captured by the Portuguese in 1534 AD. They have destroyed many sculptures and defaced them . Presently these Caves are a protected site under the Ancient Monuments preservation Act

The Shiva Linga in the main sanctum
A Dwarpala on one of the entrances of the main sanctum

The sculpture of Maheshmurti which is the most famous and iconic image associated with Elephanta Caves. The Central face depicts a calm Shiva or Mahadeva . The Destroyer image of Shiva or Bhairava image to the left depicts Shiva with a cruel mouth, moustache and hooked nose with skulls and serpents . The face on the right is a peaceful Shiva with feminine expressions holding a lotus.

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One side of the Maheshmurti sculpture is the Ardhanarishwar Shiva sculpture depicts Shiva, one half of body is female leaning against his Bull Nandi, the upper hands holding a snake & a mirror. The lower part of the sculpture is slightly damaged

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Ardhanarishwar Shiva

On the other side of the Maheshmurti is the Gangadhara Shiva Sculpture. The main sculptures are of Lord Shiva & his consort Parvati. According to mythology the mighty river Ganga was trapped in the matted locks of God Shiva. The Goddess Ganga has been depicted as the three headed Goddess above his hairlocks .

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Gangadhara Shiva

There is a sculpture of Natraj Shiva or the Lord in the Dancing Pose .However the lower portion of the sculpture is completely missing

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Natraj Shiva

A beautiful sculpture opposite the shrine is a scene showing Lord Shiva’s marriage to Goddess Parvati

Kalyanasundara Murti ( Marriage of Lord Shiva & Parvati)

On the north of the main entrance is a sculptured panel depicting a serene Shiva as a Mahayogi sitting in meditation on a lotus

Mahayogi Shiva

Many sculptures were damaged or defaced during the Portuguese invasion

Dwarpal sculptures which are damaged

Damaged structures of the Dwarpals ( Doorkeepers)in the background

There are other smaller caves also near the main caves ,but many of them do not have sculptures of great importance and are in a derelict condition

The trip to Elephanta is half a day trip. It is recommended to start the trip early in the morning to escape the heat and the milling crowds which start in the second half of the day

Holi Festivities at Mahim Koliwada

A visit to the local fishmarket on a Sunday and an warm invitation from our Kolin (fisherwoman) from whom we buy fish regularly to visit the Holi celebrations at Mahim Koliwada where she resides seemed like a exciting prospect. I had heard that Holi
is the most important festival of the The Koli ( Fisherfolk) community in Maharastra,India however after I visited it and seeing the festivities and grandeur it was confirmed .

As it is known Holi is the festival of colours and heralds the end of winter and the beginning of spring and harvest. All over India especially in North India and West India the festival is celebrated with a lot of gusto.

Holi celebrations at Koliwada start days before the actual festival . The night before Rang Panchami or Dhulivandan (the festival of colours ) the fisherfolk light a bonfire gather and circumbulate (pradakshina ) performing religious rituals in front of the bonfire

The next morning is celebrated as Rangpanchami or Dhulivandan ( festival of colours)where people smear each other with colours like gulal and drench each other with water

A tall bonfire is erected between two chawls standing opposite each other . Every chawl has a different decoration and rangoli themes . The bonfire is decorated with flowers, garlands and an image of a Goddess complete with green bangles, saree is erected atop the big pole. A lot of creativity ,love and devotion is displayed when decorating the Goddess.

The image of the Goddess atop a decorated pole

A close up of the Goddess atop the pole. Note the beautiful Devi Mukh (face) ,green bangles and saree draped and adorned with garlands

Notice the braid decorated with flowers on the Goddess erected atop the pole

There is a Small idol of a Goddess Ekveera also installed beneath the decorated pole near the Bonfire . Ladies offer coconuts,betel leaves, haldi kumkum and perform pooja of the idol

A beautiful idol of Goddess Ekveera at the base of the Pole

Pooja being performed of the Ekveera Goddess

Rangolis with sea salt or Rangoli Powder are created around the bonfires

A beautiful Rangoli
A Rangoli made with Sea Salt and displaying a very strong Social message of National Integration

The Koli men,women & children are dressed in their finery. Music is played at every nook and corner of the buildings and the Koli folk can be seen dancing with gay abandon to the catchy Koli music.

Every building is lit with strings of coloured lights and different decorations .There is a festive mood mixed with joy ,tradition and happiness.

A attractive gateway at the entrance of a Building

Celebrations continue through the night with dancing & feasting. Next morning the bonfire is lit amidst fanfare and devotion .

How about connecting with your fisherwoman and paying a visit to her home next Holi by joining her in her celebrations. I bet this will make her happy and bring a smile to her face

Exciting Pattaya

After our exotic Vietnam & Historical Cambodia, what could be better than to end our vacation with a trip to the Land of Fun & Excitement .. You guessed it -Bangkok & Pattaya. If you have read my blog on Cambodia where I have mentioned that we took a flight in the evening from Siem Reap International airport to Don Mueang International Airport,Bangkok.It takes about 1 hour 20 mins to reach Bangkok from Siem Reap(Cambodia) by flight . After completing immigration formalities we proceeded directly to Pattaya which is a beach city and one of the hottest tourist destination.
We had hired a cab from the airport and the drive takes about 2 hours from Bangkok if there is no traffic.

Before I proceed with my narrations about our trip , I would like to give a brief introduction of Thailand for a first time visitor.

Thailand is another Southeast Asian country sharing its borders with Cambodia,Malaysia ,Laos & Myanmar. The climate is tropical with high humidity. It is cooler in the months from November to February.

Pattaya is a beach resort city of Thailand . It is famous for its beaches ,food and nightlife. The locals are friendly & the cuisine awesome & world famous.

Clean city of Pattaya
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Delicious Thai Red Curry & Steaming Rice

For the adventurous foodie ,there are food items sold on roadside stalls/ carts like Chicken feet soup,Fried insects and bugs/scorpion,dishes of red ant and its eggs,grilled snakehead fish & the Durian fruit which has a strong smell. But since we were not so adventurous we stuck to the tried and tested dishes though we did try out a lot of street food like soup, Chicken/ pork on skewers etc. There are a number of Indian restaurants in Thailand so if you need to stick to comfort food ,there are many options available. There are vegetarian restaurants too for the vegetarians . And a special mention must be made of the most delicious coconut water at Pattaya Beach.

Now continuing with my trip details, after arriving at Pattaya late into the night, we checked into our hotel at Pattaya situated close to the beach . Next day early morning we decided to browse through the streets and markets of Pattaya .

Exploring the lanes of Pattaya and on our way to the Soi Buakhao Market

And weren’t we lucky ? Tuesday & Friday there is a weekly market called the Soi Buakhao Market which is among the busiest and most popular local markets in Pattaya. It offers a great range of products at equally great prices and it is one of the best places in town to look for souvenirs.

Stalls inside the Soi Buakhao Market

There are stalls which start early in the morning by 7 am and close down by 2.30 pm. The goods on sale include a wide variety T-shirts, shorts, jeans, Thai silk items, handbags, sunglasses, shoes, and the other clothing. Many street food vendors also set up shop around the edges of the market. Prices are low, however can be lowered further with skillful haggling . We purchased some jackets,souvenirs and clothes. Though the official closing timing for the market is 3 pm , the vendors start shutting down the stalls by 2 pm so it is advisable to visit before 2 pm .

In the evening went for the Alcazar cabaret show which is one of the most popular ladyboy cabaret shows . It is a dazzling show with energetic acts, bright colors and extravagant costumes which promises an entertaining evening for people of all ages.The show is for approximately an hour .And it is definitely a must visit.

Alcazar Show

After an early dinner, we decided to explore the nightlife in Pattaya which is world famous. Walking Street is an entertainment zone in Pattaya. The street is a tourist attraction which draws foreigners and Thai nationals for its nightlife.The 1km strip at the end of beach road is home to hundreds of bars, restaurants and night clubs. From the moment you enter this famous party zone from its beach road entrance, you will be struck by the sheer number of neon lights advertising the many bars, clubs and restaurants. The place is absolutely buzzing with people.

From 6 pm until 2 am the road is closed to vehicles, and the strip becomes a swarm of people. We walked down the entire stretch but there was not a moment we ladies felt unsafe walking through this area or for that matter any area in Pattaya . It is a crowded tourist place and very commercial too.

Walking Street,Pattaya

Next day after an continental breakfast at the hotel , we proceeded to the Sriracha Tiger Zoo which is half an hour drive from Pattaya.

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There is a tiger zoo ,an enclosure where tourists feed tiger cubs milk,a lot of shows like Elephant show,crocodile show ,tiger show,piglet race , circus of lions etc. The visit to Sriracha Tiger Zoo takes an entire day.

Elephant show in the Sriracha Zoo

The morning next, we visited the Coral Island also known as Koh Larn which is a little patch of paradise just a 45-minute boat ride from Pattaya beach . The largest of Pattaya’s Near Islands, it is ringed by beautiful white-sand beaches and warm turquoise seas.

Boats which take you across to Coral Islands

There are many adventure sports available like parasailing and speedboat riding, jet skiing, banana boat riding. Although not much coral left to be seen, the island’s clear waters are excellent for snorkelling. For the less energetic the beach has plenty of sun loungers for you to laze. Beach vendors do exist, but still very small in number compared to Pattaya Beach. For the shoppers ,many shops selling tourist stuff like Tshirts,sarongs ,hats , beach wear and souvenirs can be found along the beach, but the prices tend to be a little higher than in Pattaya or Bangkok city. This trip can be completed by late afternoon

Ready to go for Paragliding at Coral Islands – Clicked during our first visit to Pattaya with the kids

In the evening after our return to Pattaya, we strolled along the beach having the fresh and sweet coconut water .Had dinner at an Indian restaurant.

Nong Nooch village was our destination the next day. Nong Nooch Garden is beautifully landscaped park like a theme park with daily cultural shows, restaurants as well as a vast area showcasing individually themed gardens.

Nong nooch village

We had a leisurely stroll through the botanical park with varieties of cactus and succulent plants, orchid nurseries, tropical palm gardens, bonsai and topiary garden.There is the Thai Cultural Hall in the premises where we watched the Classical Thai Dance.Half a day suffices for a trip to Nong Nooch village.

Nong Nooch Village
Traditional Thai Dance at Nong Nooch Village

Evening was a shopping spree at the night markets of Pattaya with us ladies wishing that the night doesn’t end.

This trip to Thailand in the month of November was our second trip . Our first trip a few years back with the kids was in the month of April which is normally quite humid and hot. However, we were lucky to watch the Songkran festival which is held in the month of April around the 13th – 15th of April .

Songkran festival being celebrated on the streeets of Pattaya

The Songkran Festival is a national holiday in Thailand. It marks the beginning of the Thai New Year .Water is an extremely important part of this festival. As a symbol of renewal in Buddhism, water is splashed on statues of Buddha for good luck, and younger generations bathe the hands of the elderly to receive their blessing in return. People gather in the streets to join huge water fights with pichkaris ( squirt guns ) .Huge drums filled with water are kept on the roadside and locals pour water on each other. Tourists are also drenched in water if they happen to pass by the locals. All happens in good fun with a lot of laughter and festivity. This festival is very similar to our Holi festival ,only unlike India where we smear colors on each other or use water balloons, this festival is only played with plain water.

Songkran festival at Noong Nooch village

Bangkok & Pattaya are our favourite international destinations. This was our second trip to both these cities but we would definitely love visiting them a third time and exploring them more. They somehow grow on you and the vibrant atmosphere makes it all the more appealing.

After exploring most of Pattaya’s famous tourist spots, next destination was Bangkok the capital of Thailand.

Historical Cambodia

After our sojourn at Vietnam we departed early morning at 7 am by a luxury bus Mekong Express from Ho Chi Minh for Cambodia. We reached the Immigration Office of Vietnam by 9.30 am where the Departure Immigration formalities were completed at the Bus station and by 10.30 am we were in Cambodia. Our destination was Siem Reap where the Historical Angkor Wat is situated.

We had to pass Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia 230 kms from Ho Chi Minh which we reached at 3.30 pm . The journey time from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap as per Google maps is 9 hrs 30 mins but with immigration formalities , a sumptuous lunch of Khmer Chicken Curry & Rice and tea breaks we reached Siem Reap by 8.30 pm . The journey was quite comfortable and watching the countryside with paddyfields, villages made it all the more pleasant .

Cambodia is also a South East Asian country sharing borders with Laos,Vietnam & Thailand . The name Cambodia invokes memories of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime under the dictator Pol Pot and the atrocities committed on the citizens . It is basically a agricultural country and also thrives on tourism mainly because of the the UNESCO world heritage site Angkor Wat.

Food Travails : Cambodia is not so famous for its cuisine as its neighboring countries like Vietnam & Thailand but has delicious Khmer food. Kuy teav made from pork/beef ( similar to Pho of Vietnam),the delicious Fish Amok (Cambodia’s signature dish fillets of freshwater fish cooked in coconut milk) , eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar steamed in banana leaves are some of the famous dishes.

Like Vietnam , vegetarian dishes and restaurants are difficult to find in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh so unless you have time to scout for a vegetarian hotel , it is advisable for vegetarians to carry along some non perishable food stuff or else subsist on fresh fruit available in the local markets.

Currency in Cambodia is the Cambodian Riel . One Cambodian Riel = 0.018 INR However since we had planned only two days in Cambodia we did not convert our currency and used USD for shopping. Shopping is cheap and bargaining works.

After checking into Hotel Park Lane ,we proceeded for dinner at the market place in Siem Reap. The nightlife in Siem Reap is bustling . The souvenir shops / restaurants / hotels in the market place are open late into the night till 1 am and the streets are crowded with locals and tourists even late at night. After a typical Khmer dinner comprising of fried rice with chicken, Khmer Roast Duck, Amok we decided to shop at the souvenir shops and walk around the lanes in the market area.

Next morning we left for Angkor Wat which is 5.5 kms from Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat , ‘ the city ( which became a ) pagoda ‘ is a temple complex in Cambodia and one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Wat is the name for a Buddhist Temple. Originally constructed by King Suryavarman II in the first half of the 12th Century both as a Capital and as a State Temple temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century . The outer limits of Angkor Wat entire temple is set by a broad moat ,faced in laterite and sandstone. It is an architectural wonder and a treat to the eyes

The area surrounding the Angkor Wat

The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last shaped like a pyramid

The inner square in the AngkorWat Temple and the interlinked galleries

Offerings being made to a Vishnu Statue

The central temple complex consists of three storeys, each made of laterite, which enclose a square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries.
The corners of the second and third storeys are marked by towers, each topped with symbolic lotus-bud towers

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There are various carvings in the galleries dedicated to the stories of Rama & Krishna ( believed to be avatars of Vishnu). A special mention must be given to the intricate carvings depicting the Battle of Kurukshetra which is in the West side Gallery,South section.

In the middle is the central tower, which gives the whole grand ensemble its sublime unity . The stairs to the upper level are immensely steep and open to a limited number per day with a queuing system.Unfortunately the day we visited , it was closed .

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The Central Tower

The approx sightseeing time for Angkor Wat takes about 3 hours though there are tourists who stay for a week to sightsee the temple and its surrounding areas in detail.

After that we moved to Angkor Thom ( Great City) which are basically ruins of one of the largest Khmer cities and about 20 mins away from Angkor Wat. It was founded by Jayavarman II and his successors and was the capital city for atleast a few centuries . The entrance from the South side has sculptures of Asuras and the Devas depicting the Sagar Manthan .

Depicting the Sagar Manthan

The other side of the Entrance

The Bayon is a richly decorated Khmer temple which stands at the centre of Angkor Thom.  It is a mass of face towers to create a mountain of ascending peaks .It has vast displays depicting the various gods, goddesses, and other-worldly beings from the mythological stories and epic poems of ancient Hinduism . Mingled with these images are actual known animals, like elephants, snakes, fish, and monkeys

Face Towers of the Bayon Temple

A Part of the Bayon temple

Face Towers of the Bayon Temple

From there we proceeded to the The Ta Prohm ( Tree Temple ) which was a temple monastery with temples and other additional enclosures. The main attraction are the gigantic trees . Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls and terraces apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures. Trunks of trees twist amongst stone pillars .The entire viewing takes about 2 hours.

Ta Prohm
The trunk of the gigantic trees in Ta Prohm

The monuments,Face Towers,Island Temples in the entire Angkor area are very wide spread. Ideally you should have atleast 3 days or a week if possible . Absorbing the atmosphere , examining the details and exploring the Galleries and the sections , temples in detail cannot be completed in a day.

However , if you are short of days and wish to complete atleast the major sites then you can cover the main Angkor Wat temple,South Gate of Angkor Thom-Bayon-Terrace of Leper King-Elephant Terrace-Ta Prohm in a day or two. If you plan to stay for more than 2 days then Phimeanakas & The Royal Enclosure,Prasat Kravan -Pre Rup-East Mebon-Ta Som can be included to the previous itinerary.

Else even a day is sufficient to tour Angkor Wat and the surrounding structures like Angkor Thom,Bayon,Elephant Terrace & Ta Prohm unless you need to go deep into history The only place to stay when visiting Angkor is Siem Reap . So if you plan to visit only Angkor Wat then 2-3 days is ideally sufficient for your stay at Cambodia unless you plan to visit other places like Phnom Penh .

After a fulfilling trip in Cambodia we were ready to fly at night to Bangkok for four days of the beaches and shopping

Exotic Vietnam

We being avid travellers with an unsatiable hunger for history and good food, after a lot of research on what would match our preferences we decided to visit Vietnam which has a longstanding history plus is a foodies haven.

It took us months of planning especially calculating the cost factor since ours is always a budget travel combined with visiting maximum places in the tour, in short ‘value for money’ as we call it. We had initially planned Vietnam & Cambodia since we had visited Bangkok & Pattaya previously. But while checking for our air tickets ,we found the return tickets from Cambodia to India were considerably expensive whereas the return tickets via Bangkok to India were cheaper and the cost of travel would be reduced inspite of us having a four day stay at Bangkok/ Pattaya . And thus our trip was finally planned as Vietnam-Cambodia -Thailand .

A brief introduction to Vietnam especially for a first time visitor : Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country sharing its borders with Cambodia & Laos. It is famous for its beaches food and history mainly the Vietnam war The climate is tropical with high humidity. It is recommended to visit Vietnam in February to April ,but we had visited in November and the climate was quite cool and pleasant.

In November we embarked upon our exciting journey to Vietnam. With a stop over at KL International airport, Malaysia we reached Hanoi by afternoon. We normally arrange with the hotel where we are going to stay for an airport pickup. After driving downtown to our hotel situated in the Old quarters of Hanoi which was just a 2 minutes walk to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and 5 minutes to the Night Market right where the action is.

A Busy street in Hanoi

Old Quarters Hanoi

The Ho Chi Minh Mausolem (Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese Communist Revolutionary Leader and also the Prime Minister and President of Democratic Vietnam) ,One Pillar Pagoda , The Temple of Literature & the Hoa Lo Prison used by French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners are various places to visit when in Hanoi. All places are close by and easily reached by the local tuk tuk (equivalent to our rickshaws) or taxis.

A place of offering in Ho Chi Minh Mausolem

Food Travails : We being foodies , we had hired a Food Guide who took us through the lanes of Old Hanoi into homes of residents to taste authentic Vietnamese food. We had Bun cha ( dish of grilled meats with noodles ) , Pho ( the famous street food of Vietnam which is a delicious noodle soup made with chicken , pork or beef ) , Banh Mi (a hot dog type bread with pork slices/ chicken ,Vietnamese sauces,pork pate) , Banh cuon ( rice crepes with stuffing of meat with sauces ) ,Vietnamese Spring rolls being authentic Vietnamese delicacies.

Relishing Delicious Vietnamese food during our food tour
Vietnamese Spring Rolls

A word of caution for the vegetarians though. You are advised to carry along non perishable food stuff which will last you through your trip,cos though you may get dishes having veggies but the broth is mainly of chicken/beef /pork or fish sauce. Of course ,if you have the time you can scout for Vegetarian hotels which are very rare or subsist on fresh fruits available in the local markets .

A special mention should be made of Cafe Giang 39 a old coffee house since 1946 which serves the most delicious Egg coffee and a variety of unique Icecreams like the Black rice Yoghurt Icecream,Sticky rice icecreams etc etc. Since Vietnamese drink black tea / coffee and we being used to having milk in our tea / coffee it was a tough time intially explaining to the waiter that we wanted milk. After a lot of efforts trying to explain in different ways he finally understood what we wanted and gave us a can of condensed milk which doubled up as milk and sugar for the tea. The rest of our trip in Vietnam was easy. We directly used to ask for Condensed milk

Vietnamese Coffee with Condensed Milk

As night sets, after 10 pm the lanes and bylanes in Old Hanoi get transformed into a Food street. There are small plastic chairs and tables set outside on the pavements and the traffic is cordoned off. The entire place is crowded with locals and foreigners who gather to relish the delicious food over a drink .

Foodie street in Old Quarters Hanoi
Foodie street in Hanoi

The atmosphere is casual and vibrant. Some unique things which I noticed were, after the crowds disperse by the wee hours of night the stall owners wash the footpaths so that the footpaths are clean for the next business day. And there is a garbage truck which stops outside every lane at 11 pm to pick up trash and it continously plays music so the stall owners know that the truck has arrived and they come to deposit their trash .

Currency in Vietnam is Vietnamese Dong (VND) . The exchange rate when we had visited was 1 $ = 250000 VND. The smallest denomination is a 10000 VND note. The initial few days were tough for us while shopping since we were not used to the locals quoting 5 million or 10 million and we used to take back our VND note as a reflex action thinking we were buying expensive stuff . But within a few days we got used to this term and were expert shoppers at the end of the trip

Traffic in Hanoi is chaotic and crazy. The traffic does not stop at the red signal,especially bikers and it is upto you how to dodge the traffic and cross the road.

The Vietnamese people are friendly and helpful though communication is a major issue. Most of the locals don’t know English especially the street vendors so shopping and bargaining is really tough. It was mostly playing dumb charades with them and finally we managed to convey what we wanted to .

Shopping is extremely cheap and curios and sovenirs can be bought in the local market place . Haggling is perfectly acceptable

From chaotic Hanoi,next destination was the beautiful Halong Bay Cruise, which is 170 kms from Hanoi where we arrived by the Cruise Shuttle bus.

The docks from where you board a cruise to Halong Bay

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site with more than 2000 limestone peaks that jut from emerald green waters. We had booked an overnight cruise at Halong Bay
with Lunch /Dinner & Breakfast included

PicturesqueHalong Bay

After a lunch consisting of Sticky rice ,Vietnamese Prawns ,Squid fry,Pork,Pho,Carrot & Yam salad we were transported in a smaller boat from where we visited a island beach called Ti Top named after a Russian captain who helped them in their war against the imperialists . There is a climb to the top of the structure from where we could see the beautiful scenery around Halong Bay. We also did kayaking in the Bay waters

The Emerald Green Waters of Halong Bay and the Tip Top Islands in the background

Next morning after a fitful sleep and a sumptuous breakfast we visited the Sung Sot Caves ( Surprise Caves ) which true to its nickname took us by surprise. The inner space of the caves is large and the ceiling is decorated with stalactites like colorful chandeliers and the floor with plenty of rocks in diverse shapes of elephants,horse to trees and leaves,flowers. It was a sight to behold

Sung Sot Caves

After a cooking session organised by the Cruise boat we disembarked for our return journey to Hanoi. Next day was our 2 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh ( Saigon ) which is in South Vietnam. We had booked a tour for the Cu Chi Tunnels from India itself. Immediately on landing at Ho Chi Minh airport we directly drove to the Cu Chi tunnels site

The tunnels of Cu Chi are an immense network of connecting tunnels located in Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh and are a part of the many network of tunnels that underlie much of the country.The Cu Chi Tunnels were a location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam war .The tunnels were used by Viet soldiers during combat as well as communication and supply routes,hospitals, food and weapon caches . The tunnels are amazing and is a must see for all history buffs.

Guerilla Warfare methods adopted by Vietnamese Soldiers

Trap Door during the Vietnam War in Cu Chi tunnels

Tourists are allowed to explore some tunnels but they are extremely narrow and have to be explored crawling on all fours

Evening was a walking tour of Ho chi Minh which was equally a vibrant city bustling with traffic like Hanoi and a Night food market and sovenir shops etc

Enjoying Sugarcane Juice in Ho Chi Minh Market place
The Street Food Market in Ho Chi Minh

Next morning we had a full day visit scheduled to the Mekong Delta , 75 kms away from Ho Chi Minh. Enroute to Mekong Delta , the entire countryside was picturesque surrounded by orchards and rice fields. We were given a boat ride in the Delta followed by lunch at one of the restaurants in the islands. From there we participated in various activities like visiting a bee farm, tasting different wines including snake wine,coconut wine, a coconut candy mfg unit, a horse cart ride and a canoe ride amongst the small waterways in the delta.It was an amazing experience. The tour lasted till mid afternoon

Lunch at Mekong Delta

After an overnight halt at Ho Chi Minh, next day we were ready for our trip to Cambodia ( a seperate blog written ) by bus.

Rani ni Vav -Patan-Gujarat,India

Patan is a small village in Gujarat ,a state in India. It can be reached from Ahmedabad which is the nearest airport . Patan is about 100 kms away from Ahmedabad and is accessible by road or rail. We travelled to Ahmedabad from Mumbai and keeping it as a base visited two places with ancient history namely Modhera & Patan .

After visiting Modhera ( do read my blog on Modhera) which we completed by 12.30 pm , we drove down to Patan which is approx a 45 minute drive and 34 kms from Modhera . After having lunch at a dhaba serving Junagadhi food , we drove down to see another architectural marvel Rani ki Vav ( Vav means a Well in Gujarati ) which is one of the finest step well in India and situated in Patan

Step wells were built during ancient times not only for storage of water ,but also for recreational purposes when the Rani or Queen used to come with her maids to escape the scathing sun and enjoy the cool breeze wafting at the base of the well .It also served as a social get together spot for the village ladies when they used to come to fill water in their pots and also for religious ceremonies . Stepwells also made the task of filling water easier since the villagers could climb down to the groundwater level to fill water

Rani Ni Vav

Rani ki Vav or the Queens step well is an intricately constructed stepwell situated in the town of Patan built in the 11th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site .Located on the banks of Saraswati River, Rani ki Vav was built in memory of King Bhimdev Solanki by his beloved wife queen Udayamati. The stepwell was later flooded by the nearby Saraswati River and silted over until the late 1980s. When it was excavated by the ASI , the carvings were found in a proper condition.

It is an architectural wonder and I really marvel as to how the craftsmen must have created such a well with perfect dimensions and carved such intricate carvings and steps in those days when scales or modern tools were not available .

Intricate Carvings on each level of the Vav
Note the footwear worn by the Apsara on the left of the image
Carvings on the sides of the steps

The steps of the Vav begin at ground level, leading you down through several pillared pavilions to reach the deep well below. We had hired a guide because it was just not possible to understand the carvings and the history behind the Vav just by observing it . There are more than 800 elaborate sculptures amongst the seven levels . The main theme is the Dashavataras, or ten incarnations of Vishnu, including Buddha. There are many sculptures of apsaras painting their lips and adorning themselves at each level of the vav. Every level is different from the other and it is with awe and admiration that you appreciate the craftsmanship and the efforts taken by the craftsmen of yore .

However , unfortunately we were unable to go down to the last level which has been kept closed due to security reasons as mentioned by our guide

After completing Rani ni Vav we proceeded to a place next to it called the Sahastralinga
Talav which was a artificial water storage tank constructed by the Chalukya King Sidharaj Jai Singh in the late eleventh century. However it is completely dry now and in the ruins.

Sahastralinga Talav

It took about 2 hours for us to complete sightseeing the Vav after which we drove down to Ahmedabad which is about a 3 hour drive from Patan . There are many budget hotels to stay in Patan but except the Rani ni Vav not much of places to see. Ofcourse Patan is famous for its weavers who make the hand woven and intricate Patola saree. There is a Patola saree making unit in the main town and those interested can go to watch how an Patola saree is woven and also buy them .

Ahmedabad, India

The curiosity to visit two places having ancient history in Gujarat namely the Sun Temple at Modhera & the ancient Step Well Rani ni Vav at Patan gave us the opportunity to explore Ahmedabad too . These two places are close to Ahmedabad so we decided to keep Ahmedabad as the base and travel to these places.Little did we know that Ahmedabad also had a lot of history behind it and we would tick mark a third place for sightseeing in our itinerary which initially had just two places Modhera & Patan. Ahmedabad being the third.

Since travelling by road could take almost an entire day to reach Ahmedabad (Mumbai -Ahd is 526 kms ) to save time we decided to travel to Ahmedabad by the Shatabdi Express which leaves Mumbai at 6.15 am and reaches Ahmedabad at 1.30 pm. The train travel is quite comfortable with breakfast and lunch being served on the train and the broad windows of the train giving an unhindered view of the countryside as the train races to reach its destination in time. After checking into a hotel at Law Garden we decided to explore Ahmedabad in the afternoon.

Food : There are many dhabas or carts available in every nook and corner of the city comprising of fluffy khaman, jalebi-fafda, dabeli and samosas. The rates are extremely cheap and coupled with a hot cutting chai can make a wholesome meal in itself. Restaurants around serve the standard Punjabi dishes,pav bhaji ,Dosa,idli etc.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img-20171228-wa0099.jpg

                                                    Street food of Fafda /Jalebi ,Khaman 

There are not many non vegetarian restaurants available. You may get some in the Mirzapur Road area where the Siddi Sayyed Mosque, Bhadra Fort are located.During our visit to these places in the evening,we chanced upon this tiny place called Famous Samosa House which served a unique combination of mini  mutton samosas with pav.   

After tucking into delicious Gujarati Thali comprising of farsans, phulkas, veggies, kadhi dal and rice and totally satiated we visited the Sabarmati Ashram which was once the residence of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. It is located on the tranquil and serene stretch of Sabarmati River and has a number of other establishments within its bounds. The most famous among them is the museum ‘Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya’ which has some of Gandhi’s personal letters and photographs on display. There are other buildings and sites within the Gandhi Ashram known as Nandini, Vinoba Kutir, Upasana Mandir, and Magan Niwas. The cottage Hriday Kunj has his charkha and the writing table preserved there along with his wooden chappals and his spectacles .

At Sabarmati Ashram

After spending time in the Ashram we visited the Adalaj Stepwell or called Adalaj ni Vav ( Vav meaning well in Gujarati ) which is 14 kms from Sabarmati Ashram. Stepwells are wells in which the water is reached by steps. The stepwell may have been built to ensure water during periods of drought. Adalaj Stepwell is intricately carved and is five stories deep. It was built in 1498 by the Queen Rudradevi in memory of her husband Rana Veer Singh . It is a fine example of Indian architecture work. It is recommended to visit this well before sunset because climbing down the steps after sunset is a bit risky.

Adalaj Ni Vav
The base level of the Vav

A view from the second last level of the Vav

Evening we visited Law Garden for a round of shopping. Law Garden has lanes dedicated to stalls selling handicrafts, costume jewellery ,traditional Gujarati Chania Choli and other traditional apparel . A little ahead is the Khau Galli or the foodie street where late evening stalls serve street food like Pav Bhaji , Dosa , Chaat items ,Chinese food . The lane is crowded by 9 pm with locals

The next day was scheduled for our visit to Modhera & Patan. It was a day trip and we returned home late evening.

Swaminarayan Akshardham in Gandhinagar ( about 45 mins from Law Garden ) was on the top of our itinerary the next day. Akshardham is an architectural marvel with a perfect blend of art, culture and devotion . Spread over large expanse of land the
majestic Akshardham Temple is built using 6000 tons of pink sandstone.Since cameras and cell phones are not allowed inside the temple complex due to security reasons, we were unable to capture pics but the grandeur of the temple will always remain in our memory.

The afternoon was spent in sightseeing local tourist places in Ahmedabad like the Hathi Singh Jain Temple a renowned Jain temple

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A Monument inside the Hathi Singh Jain Temple

The Siddi Sayyed mosque, close to it is the Rani Rupmati’s Mosque which is built with Islamic & Hindu architecture. Rani Rupmati’s tomb is also situated here. A little ahead at a distance of 5 mins is the Bhadra fort and Teen Darwaza a beautiful pillared gateway

Carvings in the Siddi Sayyed mosque
Carvings in the Siddi Sayyed mosque
Rani Rupmati’s mosque built with Hindu & Islamic architecture
The Bhadra Fort

After a toy train ride at the Kankaria Lake late evening, we were ready to board our night train to Mumbai