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Going back to Bangkok to see and eat a little more. :)

Our last stop in S.E.A. before we head to India!

sunny 32 °C
View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

We chose to go to Bangkok for two reasons. One, we found a reasonably cheap flight from Bangkok to Kolkata, India, our next destination. Two, I wanted to go back to further explore the city and enjoy more Thai food. I said “I” wanted to go back because Thanh was reluctant. Thanh and I had been to Bangkok less than a year ago, and she had also been there five years before that. Never the less, we were going back and we agreed to stay for four nights.
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Besides eating at a local food court near our inn, and Thanh realizing that she left half of her wardrobe in a dresser drawer at our B&B in Gili Trawangan, there’s not much to report about our first night in Bangkok.

The next day however was a different matter, as we did some shopping, visited another aquarium and went to visit the very touristy Jim Thomson House Museum.

After a continental breakfast at our inn, we took the Skytrain to shop at the Siam Center and the amazing Siam Paragon. The food court is found in the basement of the Siam Paragon and it is out of this world. It is huge and has all kinds of local and international eateries. The choices are so overwhelming that it took us a half hour just to decide what we were going to eat. We settled on some basic but delicious Thai food; Tum Yum Soup and Chicken Curry. Yummy!
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After lunch we explored Ocean World, a nice, but expensive aquarium located in the basement of the Siam Paragon. There we saw a lot of species that we had already encountered at Underwater World in Langkawi, but we did see some new species we hadn’t before like these crazy massive crabs that live along the ocean floor, some blue scorpions, funny worms, and an endangered Blue Fin Tuna frozen inside, so they say, the largest block of man made ice on earth.
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Before heading back to our home away from home, we toured the Jim Thompson House Museum. This famous Bangkok landmark was the former home of an American expat, ex-CIA agent, architect and business man who introduced the Western world to Thai silk. Today, his company still exists and there are many outlets across Thailand. Thompson was passionate about architecture and in 1959 he built an authentic Thai home for himself and his servants. The place is completely made of teak and there beautiful flowers everywhere. Mysteriously in 1967, he went missing in Malaysia and was never heard from again. The government took over the home, left it untouched, and made it into a museum.
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The following morning we took the advice from one of my friends from MTA, Natasha, and we headed to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. Wow! This market was a good one. It’s Thailand’s biggest (maybe S.E.A.‘S) and most intense market. This market had lots of clothes for sale, and the t-shirts for sale there may have been the nicest and most creative I‘ve seen in a long time. Aside from the clothes, this market had some great food and snacks for sale. Our highlights were popsicles made in front of your eyes (frozen with this crazy contraption), and the freshly made coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell.
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Again, following advice from another friend of mine, Chris, this time from home in Montreal, Thanh and I went to watch professional Thai boxing at the Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium. After buying our tickets and before taking in the matches, we went to a restaurant next door that it famous for it’s BBQ chicken.

Once seated, we ordered the delicious chicken and also a plate of fresh spicy shrimp to go with it. The waitress looked at me funny and tried to tell me something but I couldn’t understand her. Well we discovered what she was trying to tell us….the thing was that “fresh” actually meant raw and we were quite shocked to be served the uncooked crustacean topped with an extremely fiery chilli sauce. The waitress saw it in our eyes when she served it and was a little hesitant to leave us alone with it. LOL!! I love sushi but raw shrimp has a buttery texture that both Thanh and I do not enjoy. To be polite we had one raw shrimp each but left the rest there.
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The boxing was more entertaining than I had hoped for. Even Thanh, who was unenthusiastic with the idea, had a good time. The crowd was divided into two; the local side and the foreigners side. The local side got pretty rowdy as most everyone in that section was betting on the outcomes. There is also a live band, that plays traditional Thai music with flutes and bongos while the fighters are going at it. So there were seven match ups in all, but because of supper, we only saw the final five. Upon entering the arena each fighter starts off their routines by doing a dance, some stretches and some prayers, before the bell is wrung. Each match consists of 5 rounds, 3 minutes each, with a two minute breaks in between rounds. Although we saw no one get knocked out, we did see some great action with some violent exchanges of punches and legs kicks, as well as a few TKOs. Shockingly (or maybe not because Chris warned us) the last fight was between two kids not older than 12. These kids were fierce and I’m sure no one messes with them at school.
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We left the stadium and embarked on a crazy taxi ride to Patpong, Bangkok’s “Red Light“ district, known for its infamous “Ping-Pong” shows . Our cab driver must be new in town because he had no idea how to get there and had to consult his friend on his mobille the whole way. Anyways, we avoided the ping-pong shows last time we were in Bangkok because Thanh had already experienced it several years ago, and I had no real interest in it, but this time we were going for the full Bangkok experience. The show was a real disappointment to say the least, and was a big waste of time. Adding to our regret was the fact that the club tried to screw us big time. To make a long story short, we were hustled into the club offering us a free show as long as we bought a drink. After finishing my first (and only) beer, the old hag of a waitress came up to me and told me that we had to pay 1300 Baht each (2600 total which is the equivalent of $87CAD) to cover the cover charge and show. I was quite insulted and frustrated, but being quite used to liars and crooks in the car industry, I kept my cool, rolled my eyes at her, and told the lady that I wasn’t having any of it and that I was leaving. As I got up and went to the cash pay our bill, the lady was then trying to create a scene to further pressure me into coughing up the cash and two ladies blocked Thanh from leaving. Unimpressed, I explained to the clerk working the cash that I was lied to, that I didn’t appreciate their sleazy tactics, and that I was only going to pay for our drinks (200 Bhat, $7CAD, for two drinks) and leave, which we did. The lesson learned from this is that one should never to go to a Ping-Pong show in Bangkok.
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We had one day left in S.E.A. before heading to India for 6 weeks. Having visited a countless number of Buddhists wats on this trip, we ventured out to go see Wat Arun, and important Bangkok landmark. This place of worship sits along the Mae Nam Chao Phraya river bank and the main stupa, which measures 82m tall with plenty of steep stairs to give you vertigo, dominates the river landscape.
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Later we shopped some more, but this time at Central World, where Thanh finally bought a few pieces of clothing to replace the ones she left behind in Indonesia. The funny things was, or not so funny, was that during our few days in Bangkok, we thought that the shopping in Bangkok was a great bargain. We made a crucial mistake in our currency conversion believing that the Canadian dollar was 1 to 40 Thai Bhat, but in reality it was 1 to 30. It was only during our final hours in Bangkok we realized our mistake. So it turns out that things were 25% more expensive than we originally calculated. Needless to say that error hurt our budget.

Although we have been travelling for a little over 6 months now, it is only now, heading to India, that we feel that our adventure is really taking off. We have heard so many stories about India, good and bad, that we are both a little nervous and anxious about the expected and unexpected. India will certainly be an experience unlike that of East Asia.
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See you from Kolkata and GO HABS GO!!!

Posted by malmn 19:02 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Krazy Kolkata

And our India adventure begins!

overcast 24 °C
View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

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Our six weeks in India began in Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal, which located in western India, right next to Bangladesh. Our plan is to slowly head east ending in Mumbai, stopping in Boghgaya, Varanasi, Agra, Delhi, Rajasthan, and if time allows for it we may go to Kerala and/or Goa.

As our flight from Bangkok was preparing for landing, enveloping Kolkata was the thickest smog we had ever seen in our lives (way worse then Mexico City or Beijing!). We could barely see the city. Passport and health control was a frenzied, unorganized affair. So was the luggage claim. After picking up our bags we crossed a New Zealander who asked us if we wanted to share a taxi into town with him. We agreed but Thanh and I needed rupees so I set out to try and find an ATM.

Some airport employees told me that the nearest ATM was at the domestic terminal 500 meters down the road. So I left Thanh alone with the Kiwi and I went by myself. It turns out that only passengers can enter so to get into the building you need to have a boarding card. Obviously I didn’t have one but I told the security guard my situation and that I needed to use the ATM. To simplify things for himself he lied and told me it was broken and then explained to me that I had to walk 3 kilometres to the closest bank machine. Jackass! Luckily we had changed our remaining Thai Bhat into Rupees at the airport in Bangkok and we had just enough to pay our share of the cab.

To make things even more frustrating, neither of us saw any office or sign for the pre-paid taxis. We figured it would be outside. Upon exiting we were ambushed by taxi touts offering us their services for three times the rate printed in the Lonely Planet. We then realized the pre-paid taxi booth must be inside. When I tried to go into the building a security guard tells me I cannot re-enter. I tell him our situation and he still wouldn’t let me in. After a minute or so arguing, he softens and explains to me that if I show him my plane ticket he will let me in. To my dismay, I had left my ticket back the crazy passport control counter so there was no way I was getting in now. I go outside to tell them what had just happened. Thanh still had her plane ticket so she tried her luck with the security guard. After some more arguing he finally let her go buy us a taxi ticket. And to add injury to insult, the man at the booth asked Thanh for 240 rupees when the price listed on the ticket was 235. The clerk was trying to pocket 5 rupees but Thanh was too smart to get bamboozled like that…..welcome to India!
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The ten kilometre, very chaotic, dusty, drive into town took us more than an hour. The roads were horribly congested and we quickly understood that common sense and safety concerns are inexistent. Drivers are out for themselves. The ones with the larger vehicles win and pedestrians are insignificant. Magically our driver managed to get us to our guesthouse without getting us into an accident, but we did see two city busses collide and then continue on their way like nothing ever happened.
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After being spoiled with the low priced-high quality accommodation throughout S.E.A., we were very disappointed with our guesthouse. Everything from the sheets to the floor was filthy, and especially the bathroom. Our guesthouse was one of the best rated mid-range on tripadvisor.com and it was also recommended in the Lonely Planet. I can’t imagine what the other mid and lower range accommodations are like.

Before heading to bed we needed a bite to eat and also needed to withdraw some rupees so we ventured out for a walk. The two most shocking things that struck us are the pollution and the poverty.

Kolkata is a very, very filthy city. So far, it is the most disgusting city I have ever visited. You can feel and taste the smoggy, dirty, dusty air with every breath you take. There are people doing their toilet business everywhere in public it, not to mention and the spitting and farting. There is garbage everywhere. People throw their trash on the ground like it’s going out of style and most buildings are in ruins.

The poverty in Kolkata is overwhelming. There are thousands of people living in the streets. Many beggars including lower caste families, children, lepers, amputees, the blind, the handicapped, the disfigured, etc. It’s pretty sad. In several parts of town the city has manual water pumps and open air toilets, and many of the poor set up pathetic attempts at tents near them. You see large families living on the streets near these outdoor facilities, cooking, cleaning, living their lives for everyone to see.
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Our four days in Kolkata saw us visit several tourists venues and landmarks.

The very large Indian Museum, which wasn’t very Indian, and desperately needs to be updated, modernized, and renovated, had many interesting things to see like real dinosaur skeletons, Egyptian mummies, and two very creepy human embryos and a goat embryo with eight legs.
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The magnificent Victoria Memorial, a huge colonial building built a little under 100 years ago, is a tribute to Queen Victoria. Unfortunately no one is allowed to take pictures indoors. That’s a shame because the inside is truly spectacular.
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Millennium Park was a little oasis for us in Kolkata. It certainly not one of the nicest parks we have ever visited but it was very enjoyable because it was the only spot where we could get away from all the intense craziness of Kolkata.
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Kolkata’s central park is the Maiden. It is huge, something like 3 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide. Again, this park isn’t beautiful but you see lots of people using it. I really enjoyed watching the men play cricket.
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Besides that we dropped by St-Paul’s Cathedral and the BBD Bugh District. In the BBD Bugh area lies the nicest colonial architecture, including the High Court, Police Station, and other important building.
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Besides exploring our neighborhood and visiting the tourist sites around town, we spent quite a bit of time on Sudder St., the “tourist street”, having breakfast, organizing our train tickets, and using the internet. It was on Sudder that we came across our first snake charmer. I tipped him 20 Rupees and out of two baskets and one bag he took out two cobras and one headless snake. He then took out his funny looking and funny sounding wind instrument and got the snake to dance a bit for me and the on looking crowd. This spectacle please me very much. It was very cool!
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Also near Sudder St. was a man who would tell your fortune using two green parrots, one for males and the other for females. Thanh and I each got our futures told. The man predicts our futures by letting one parrot out of it's cage to chose one envelope amongst many carefully laid out on the ground. Once the parrot chooses it the man open it up for us to read. The man repeated the same process using the other parrot for Thanh's future. I thought mine was amazing , and Thanh thought her's was average.
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Our first taste of real Indian food was pretty interesting, good and spicy. It’s also very inexpensive. A typical meal for one person will cost you between 1 to 5 dollars Canadian. On our first night we found a snack shop at the corner of our street. This place served a Kolkata favourite, the Kati Roll. The Kati Roll is a pathara roti, fried on one side, and it includes egg, onions and another ingredient of your choice like veggies, chicken or mutton. Other than that, we ate Thali on a couple of occasions. Thali is a meal served in small stainless steel cups, that includes many small dishes like curries, dahl, rice, pickled veggies, pappadam, and roti or nan bread. We also had Papdi Chat. It’s very hard to explain what it is, but it’s basically some crunchy fried crackers with a yogurt and other sweet and spicy sauces on top. The best thing so far has to be the chai. Chai is tea with lots of milk and sugar. It’s so tasty and very cheap. A cup sells as little as 5 to 10 rupees ($0.12-$0.25 CDN) and is found at almost every street corner. McDonald’s in India is very special. Since the cow is holy in India, there is no beef for sale. Not at all. There is no hamburger. No Quarter Pounder. No Big Mac. Only chicken, fish and veggie burgers. I tried a Maharajah Mac. It looks like a Big Mac but the patties are a kind of grilled spicy chicken and the sauce is spicy with a curry twang to it.
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So our first impressions of India are as expected but we are a little more uncomfortable than we thought we’d be. There are so many wonderful things to see and experience but opposite to that there are many things that are creepy, demoralizing and sad . One thing is for sure, unless you lock yourself in your room, it’s impossible to get bored here. We know that the following five weeks are certainly going to be special.

A few other observations:

- It’s not uncommon to have a power shortage. It can be nine at night, you’re walking in the streets, when the power goes out. It’s totally pitch black until some merchants start lighting candles. It can get a little creepy.

- Kolkata is one of the few places on earth where the still have human-powered rickshaws. They are everywhere and the men who drive these do it barefoot. Crazy!
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- The tourist venues and taxi/auto-rickshaws generally have two prices. One for Indians the other for foreigners. The foreigners’ price is typically ten times more. The taxi drivers never use the meter for tourists.
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- You can’t take pictures of anything. You can only take pictures of the outside of things, never inside, even when you pay an entry fee for a tourist site. You have to sneak those pictures in. It’s really crazy.

- Since the cow is holy in India, beef is not available on any menu, at least we never saw it on any menu in Kolkata. Pork is also very rare since Muslims do not eat it.

- People love staring at Thanh and I. Everywhere we go we get long, curious stares. They seem to be both amazed and confused. These stares are more intense than the Chinese ones we got on this trip. In general we say hi to them. Most people say hi back to us while some are just too shy, turn around and walk away.

- There are many animals living in the streets, mostly stray dogs. We only saw a few cows roaming the streets. Once everyday we saw a herd of goats being guided by men through the wild streets of Kolkata. These herds would disrupt traffic and cause chaos at intersections.
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- We saw a massive demonstration/protest along one of the major streets. Thanh and I estimate at least 100 000 people were protesting. It looked like it was organized by the Communist Party of India. What's really strange was that there was no mention about in the papers or internet. Nothing at all. Very weird.
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There's plenty more to write about this crazy place but I think my fingers and brain have had enough.....

Next on our itinerary is Bodhgaya a very important place for Buddhists pilgrims. It was here that Buddha first attained enlightenment…..Namaste and GO HABS GO!!!
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Posted by malmn 07:45 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

India:Two very spiritual towns and one Wonder of the World!

Bodhgaya, Varanasi and Agra

sunny 20 °C

After spending four days in Kolkata we purchased train tickets heading west towards Bodhgaya, an important Buddhist pilgrimage town, Varanasi, the holiest city in India, and Agra, where the Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world, is located.
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BODHGAYA

With a sense of relief we departed Kolkata and hopped on a night train bound for the town of Bodhgaya where we planned to stay a day and a half. We were woken up at 5 AM by a staff member who informed us we will be arriving in about 20 minutes. An hour and a half later we were still on the train. We finally arrived our station and jumped off carefully not to step to the many people sleeping at the station.
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Our auto-rickshaw ride to our hotel was quite entertaining: filth, more filth, grown men walking hand in hand, a couple dozen men peeing everywhere, a couple men taking their morning dump, a cow carcass with its head intact, and more filth.

After checking into our clean and pleasant Tibetan run hotel we headed out to the Mahabodhi Temple which is Bodhgaya’s raison d‘être. This temple is very important for Buddhists as it one of the four major stops for Buddhist pilgrims. The temple was erected at the exact location where Buddha sat under the bodhi tree to meditate and achieved enlightenment some 2600 years ago. We took our time walking through this large temple passing many Tibetan monks and western wannabe monks performing endless prayer movements on their wooden boards. We saw the gold Buddha statue placed at the exact location where he was sitting when he reached enlightenment and we sat next to the famous bodhi tree watching all the people praying and others trying to snatch a leaf of the tree for a souvenir. Mark managed to get one.
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Feeling quite privileged to have been to this very spiritually important attraction, we left the temple filled with newly found patience and love for the world. That lasted until we reached the market. The market was already so chaotic, but also, every 10 seconds someone would come up to us trying to sell us god knows what or some motorcycle driver would try to kill us. We’re still not sure which of the two annoyed us the most. I was lucky enough to also have men “run into me” or stretching their arms or elbows as they walk pass me just to get a feel. After 5 minutes, we gave up and left.
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We spent the rest of the day visiting a Thai temple, a Tibetan temple and the impressive 25-meter high Buddha statue.
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The next day, we caught an auto-rickshaw back to the station and this time got to witness the real chaos of this city. The traffic was crazy as pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, horse carriages, cows, dogs, cars and trucks share the same narrow road. And to add to the madness, Indians have invented the loudest horns known to mankind and they feel the need to keep their hands pressed on it for no reason what so ever.

The mayhem continued at the train station as we struggle to figure out where to go to catch our train. While waiting for our train, it became obvious to us that no one would look twice at the lepers, the men missing various limbs, the kid with no eye, the other kid with the burnt torso and face, but all eyes were on us. We were the biggest spectacle at that station, and no one could keep their eyes off us. And they weren’t discreet glances, it was full on stares. Some men would stare at me for a full 10 minutes, then move a few meters to get a different angle and continue to stare for another 10 minutes. We saw a guy running, I’m guessing to catch a train, then stopping short when he saw us and just stood there for a few minutes staring. After an hour or so, we had a whole audience around us, it was quite disturbing as some stares were creepier than others.

VARANASI

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Five hours later our train finally arrived in Varanasi, located along the very holy Ganges River, is the cultural and religious centre of India. Needless to say, Varanasi is an extremely religious town for Hindus. We stayed here for three very interesting days.

Most of the action in Varanasi happens along the Ganges River’s ghats. The Ganges river is also known as the Ganga or the Mother. This river is the most religious symbol and the main pilgrimage site for Hindus. People from all across India travel across the country to bathe in, take a sip of this holy water and wash away their sins. Ghats are basically steps leading directly into the river. There are dozens of ghats in Varanasi and the Dasaswamedh ghat is considered to be the main ghat. As we walk along the ghats we saw hundreds of people overjoyed while bathing in this sacred water and drinking it. We also couldn’t help feeling a little sick to our stomachs thinking that this is the same water where the city’s 32 sewage pipes spew into, where the hundreds of roaming cows and dogs pee and poo in, where dead bodies are being cremated and dumped in, and where the pollution level is thousands of times the safe level (the water is actually classified a septic). No one seems bothered by those facts as they put on their robes or crotch cloth and do their thing. Even though the water is disgusting, we couldn’t help but respecting their commitment to their faith.
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As we walked along the ghats, from Assi to Manikarnika, we experienced a lifetime of interesting, weird and outrageous things. Besides witnessing half naked people praying in the water, we saw people doing their laundry, dozens of marriages, cricket games (Mark joined a game for a bit), wandering hungry cows, goats wearing sweaters, a boy walking his pet monkey with leash, all types of gurus and religious fanatics, and even a man collecting cow dung with his bare hands then moulding it into patties.
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Along with all the strangeness we encountered, our walk was continuously interrupted by every local within arm’s reach. They either want to tell you they’ll give you the cheapest boat ride on the Ganga, that they own the best silk shop in town, the cleanest guesthouse in town, the cheapest postcards in town, or some other best business in town. Some touts, without permission, will just grab your hand and give you a sample of what they claim to be the best massage you’ll get. Few and far between are those that just want to chat with you because you‘re a foreigner. They are the same ones who try to convince me that it’s impossible that I come from Canada because people who look like me come from Japan. And after I tell them that it’s because I’m born in Vietnam, they’re curious to know what part of Europe that is.
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Our walk finally brought us to Manikarnika, the largest “burning” Ghat. It is called that since it is where families bring their deceased member to be cremated. They will bring the dead one covered with bright coloured sheets down to the ghat, then the whole family will help build a bed with the purchased wood and place the corpse on the bed, douse it with gasoline, then light it up. They then patiently sit there while the body burns.It takes about three hours for a body to be cremated. When the process is done, the family gather the remaining bones, ribs and hips, and throw them in the Ganga. This is believed to be the most honourable way to dispose of a body. As we watch the whole process unravel some 20 meters away from us, I’m surprised that it didn’t traumatize me as much as I thought it would. I was more disturbed by the half naked man brushing his teeth some inches away from a burning corpse while looking at it straight in the eyes.
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Varanasi is as filthy as Kolkata and when we arrived back at the hotel, I had a layer of black grease on my face, my hands and nails were disgusting and, as hard as I tried to avoid it, the bottom of my pants and my shoes were covered with cow dung. Thanh 0 - Cow Poo 37.

One night we watched the daily religious ceremony which honours the Ganga at the main ghat. It was a lot more meaningful than it was entertaining. Basically it was 7 guys on their podium dress in pink feminine attire and performing this even more feminine and boring dance routine. During the whole hour it lasted, the guys would just wave around different objects as flower petals, a fan, a whip, a flame…we left before it ended.
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After being pestered by the touts for our first couple of days, we finally chose to take the ever popular early 6am boat ride along the Ganges River when many religious acts performed at sunrise. Unfortunately, there was no sunrise, as it was so foggy, but it was impressive to witness Indian’s religious dedication; they woke up early and braved the cold to go bathe in an even colder river. The fog kept us from seeing much, but our guide taught us a lot about this freaky town and it’s traditions. One of the most interesting things our told guide explained to us was that the government just recently established a free cremation site for families who can’t afford the wood for a “proper“ cremation. The government did this because it is trying to tackle the river’s pollution problem since these poorer citizens would dump their deceased loved ones directly into the Ganges having tied their legs with heavy rocks. Apparently they still do the same today with the dead holy cows.
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So after having spent three days in this holy city, we’re still not quite sure what to make of it. This town was like nothing we have ever seen before,. It makes absolutely no sense and makes no excuse for it. It takes everything we know and turns it inside out and upside down. It is so weird, and at times repulsive, and yet you can’t look away. It is uncomfortable and annoying yet you don’t really want to leave. The people make absolutely no sense but you yearn to learn everything about them. It’s a traveler’s worst nightmare but also his biggest fantasy. It is the exact reason why we travel; to find a city like this one that just shocks all our senses every second of the day. We never want to come back yet we are extremely glad that we came. With all those feelings, we board our train to Agra.

AGRA

We spent 14 hours on the train relaxing, saying hello to people who would rudely open our berth’s room curtain to catch a curious glance, drinking chai, eating dhal and chapatis, sleeping. Somehow I managed to not care that two cockroaches were creeping into my pants and up my legs.

Exhausted, we arrived at our totally horrible hotel fully equipped with moulding walls, dirty bath towels, stained sheets and pillow cases and an unpleasant stuffy smell. Fortunately we were willing to put up with it (though we still complaint a lot) since we were going to see the Taj Mahal!
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Having arrived on a Friday, the Indian Wonder of the World kept us waiting. The Taj Mahal is only open to Muslims on Fridays as this is their day to pray there. This turned out to be a blessing since it gave us a whole day to explore the many beautiful sites that are often overlooked by travellers: the beautiful and the very peaceful Itmad-Ud-Daulah, a.k.a "Baby Taj", and the very impressive Agra Fort. That night we gave Indian food a discreet finger and spoiled ourselves at Pizza Hut. The place was packed! I guess we’re not the only ones trying to escape India for a bit.
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The much awaited moment came the next morning after we dished out 750Rs (20$) for the entrance fee (Indian nationals only pay 20Rs!), waited the long line-up through the metal detector, and dodged all the “official tour guides” wanting our business.
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The Taj Mahal is breathtaking. It is impressive, grand and everything we expected and more. It is not over-hyped. The site is immaculate and so well maintained you forget you’re in India. We, along with e[left]veryone else, would walk around exploring all corners of the site while searching for that ideal spot which will give you that perfect picture of this extraordinaire place. We then waited the long queue to go inside the mausoleum. Though pictures were forbidden inside, camera flashes were everywhere you turn and since the security guys didn’t seem to mind one bit, we went at it as well.
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We spent two days and nights in Agra and our next stop is Delhi, the Indian capital. We plan to stay there for a full week. As I was waiting for our outbound train, I couldn’t stop but think that while we were very fortunate to have been to so many special places in India, I am really looking forward to Delhi. I am hoping that the hygiene standards are going to be better. It might be snobbish of me, but I’m just a tad tired of dirty dishes and utensils that are only washed with soap less, cold water, filthy rags that are used to clean the bathrooms, the floors, and our dining table, stained bed sheets, and towels, bed bugs that feast on my hands and feet when I sleep, etc. etc...
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A few more observations about India. They are mostly Mark's and they aren't exactly politically correct:

- We learned never to walk behind a cow as its pee comes out with more pressure than all the showers in India combined.

- India would easily be the most beautiful country on earth only if it weren't for the over the top litter and pollution. Unfortunately Indians do not take care of their country. They shamelessly throw paper, plastic, bottles, food, or any other type of garbage on the ground. They also spit, urinate and defecate anywhere they please. It's appalling and nauseating.
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- It’s very common to see men being affectionate with each other, holding hands or holding each other, which is alright, but what’s not common is that men do not do that with their girlfriends or wives. We read that’s it’s frowned upon. One word: weird!
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- Maybe we just do not understand the culture but it seems that Indians only do things if it benefits them or their families. They do not seem to do acts of kindness to foreigners without expecting something in return, especially money or good karma. Again, maybe we just don't understand but certainly that how it feels.

- The are many, many beggars across the country. They are everywhere and they take foreigners for charity machines. They often get in your face and do not leave you alone. They are relentless and if you allow them, they will follow you every a step of the way. While it’s sad to see and you do sympathize with them, the sheer volume is overwhelming. It gets very frustrating and exhausting very quickly.

- Nothing in India comes as advertised. Touts, travel agents, and rickshaw/taxi drivers can be especially deceiving and dishonest. A foreigners must be vigilant at all times when dealing with them.
They embellish, exaggerate, lie, and promise things they can't or do not deliver. They also seem to think we are walking, naive, ATMs. They will say anything to us in order to separate us from our money.

- As for planning your travels, like booking train and plane tickets, and accommodation, it's best do to it yourself, as travel agents across the country will take huge commissions and/or will try to overcharge you. One couple we met were scammed as a travel agent over charged them by $500! Train tickets can be bought directly at the train station, and flights and hotel/hostel bookings can easily be done online.

We are now off to Delhi! See you soon!!!

Thanh and Mark

GO HABS GO!! And let's hope Canada brings home Olympic hockey gold in Vancouver!

Posted by thanh13 23:23 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Holy Cow!

How I have learned to love and appreciate them.

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Namasate!!

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The cows in India really make me laugh and I had to write a blog about these animals because I have grown very fond of them. I find them very funny, amusing, entertaining, friendly and lovely.
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As we have previously mentioned in our blog, the cows are very holy in India and it is sacrilegious to consume them here. We have never seen beef on any menu anywhere. Cows posses a certain freedom like no other species has in India. The sacred bovines really are everywhere. You can’t go a kilometre in India without seeing one.
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There are so many types of them too; male, female, white, black, brown, beige, spotted, horned, not horned, with a hump, no hump, small, large, and massive, etc. Some of them are beautiful, but many look like they are in bad shape.
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These sacred beings look both smart and stupid at the same time. The Indian chaos doesn’t phase them one bit. They are all very relaxed and slow paced. They are very innocent and friendly.

Although you some times see them at work pulling carts and the sort, you can usually find the cows grazing unmindfully, eating anything that is around them. People often lay out some greens for the them. They have no shame in walking up to a distracted vendor's stand and start munching away on his produce. Sadly, it’s also not uncommon for them to be searching through garbage for food.
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The cows are often at the wrong place at the wrong time but you just can’t get frustrated or angry with them. They walk, stand and sit where they please, even in middle of the intense traffic. Believe it or not, I actually saw a cow enter the Varanasi train station like it was any other passenger. It even went through the metal detector! I also witnessed a cow urinate at a platform where the passengers were awaiting their train with their luggage and bags. Craziness! Sometimes you get the feeling that they get in our way on purpose, just because they know they can get away with it. They are very capable of standing in the middle of a busy market, staring blankly, chewing away, and salivating like a madman, without caring one lick. We even saw two cows “going at it” on a busy sidewalk.
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They also get away with urinating and crapping anywhere they please (and cows crap a lot!!!!). They defecate on the street, side walk, at the town square, the market, in front of a temple, next to a ghat, at the strain station, even inside buildings!
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All of this makes me smile. I really love these guys and appreciate them very much. With that said I still miss a good steak and can‘t wait to get back to a non-Hindu country! LOL!
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On another note, today is Holi (March 1st), a major festival in India. Happy Holi to everyone! As well, I would like to congratulate Team Canada on winning the Olympic hockey gold medal!

Our next blog will be about Delhi!

Mark and Thanh

Posted by malmn 00:40 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Old Delhi, New Delhi and more!

One week trying to relax.....

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Our train from Agra arrived in Delhi eight hours late and to our amazement, the driver from the hotel we booked at was still there waiting for us with his little “Than & Mark” sign. It was a huge relief since the scene outside of the train station was extremely chaotic and our patience was running low. The hotel staff gave us a very warm welcome of excellent Chai Masala (tea with spices) and gave us an immaculately clean and extremely modern room. We both released an internal sigh of relief. The hotel co-owner highly recommended that we go to Alfa Spice for Valentine’s Day dinner and he was right on. The place was spotless and cozy, the Butter Chicken was amazing and I didn’t even mind the neighbour spilling my lychee cocktail all over me in his excitement of seeing foreigners. Things were finally looking up for us in India.
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The need to catch our breath and relax was growing since we had been changing cities every one to four days for well over a month now, so we planned to stay a whole week in Delhi. Our seven day stay in the Indian Capital allowed us to soak in quite a few touristy sites scattered across Old Delhi, New Delhi and beyond.

The streets of Delhi are no different than anywhere else in India. Even if it provides you with great entertainment, it also sucks the life out of you. From it’s horrible pollution (air and noise) to the eternal traffic that will not stop for you, nor dodge you, and to the locals who are restlessly harassing you, there is no refuge. The latter of the three might be the most draining one, they never leave you alone. As soon as we pull out our map or look lost, someone is always there in a matter of seconds: “Where you going, I have rickshaw I take you anywhere”, “Can I help you… you want cheap tour of Delhi?”, “Where you staying… I know cheap hotel room”, it never stops. As we walk the streets, rickshaws will follow us begging for business, block our path then ask if we need a ride, or nearly run us over then say he can give us a cheap ride anywhere. And that’s on top of merchants wanting to sell us everything under the moon. We have now become rude and scream out NO! even before they open their mouth. The first day saw us doing nothing except slowly wandering the streets around our hotel yet we still came home exhausted.
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On our second day, besides eating the best Butter Chicken we may have ever eaten at Al-Jawahar, we visited the impressive in size but not in beauty, Red Fort and Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque (where people trick you into paying a fake entrance fee) in Old Delhi.
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Connaught Place was particularly exhausting due to the persistent, aggressive and dishonest touts there, and also because the area was a maze of dangerous construction sites as the Indian capital is gearing up for the 2010 Commonwealth games. Central Park is right in the middle of Connaught Place and was a great place to get away from all that chaos.

Since the sites in New Delhi and beyond were so far apart and not reachable by the clean and efficient subway system, we chose to hire a driver to take us around for a day. We had an itinerary set but fortunately our driver didn’t totally respect it which allowed us to see some nice places we never knew about. Everywhere we went that day it was the same routine: pay the exorbitant foreigners price and camera fees (even if they forbid you to use it most of the time), go through the metal detector, get yourself frisked and bag checked, putting up with the nagging touts, and then you are finally allowed to enjoy an interesting but never perfect site.
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So our driver first dropped us off at the Laxmi Narayan Mandir temple. It wasn’t in our travel book which was surprising since it was superb.
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The National museum was next. Like the Indian Museum in Kolkata, this museum had many interesting artifacts but the place is so poorly maintained and outdated. The building was dusty, smelly, and the glass cabinets looked like they‘ve haven been cleaned for quite some time. Half of the exhibitions were under renovations (yah right!) and some of the others were incomplete; you either had a torn piece of paper informing you that the object has been moved since 2006 or you just get an empty messy display.
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Afterwards the driver did his own thing again and drove us to an area of town where many of the government buildings and the President’s estate reside. The whole neighbourhood was superb, immaculate, it was so well kept with great open area and tons of green spaces. I guess only the rich and high placed deserve the best in India, and the commoners are forgotten.
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After the obligatory tourist stop at the India gate, where the meaning is profound but the gate was forgettable, we stopped for lunch at this really cool 50s inspired American diner. It had everything from the reach leather seats and bar stools to the USA inspired menu of burgers (veg), hot dogs, chicken wings and milkshakes. The only things missing were steaks and hamburgers!
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With a very satisfied stomach, we headed to the impressive Humayan’s Tomb. At the entrance of the tomb, there was a huge class of young boys sitting on the grass and as soon as they saw Mark, they all got so animated. Some were excitedly waving at him, others wanted to touch him and shake his hands and the rest were just screaming random questions at him. Mark found himself a fan club and he was loving it.
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After I managed to tear him away from his new found fame, we made a quick stop at the Sydney-Opera-House looking Lotus Temple, then ended our tour by enjoying the sunset at the ruins of Qtar Minar which has been around since 1193.
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We also took a day to go visit the new Akshardham Temple which is a little out of town. We took the subway all the way out there but we never actually went inside the site because of the major hassle. There is an enormous amount of security there. You get checked frisked and searched three times before entering and the lines are very long and slow. After checking my bag, which took thirty minutes, we discovered another check point and cameras were not allowed in. That meant we had to go back through the security process all over again. We surrendered and went back home without seeing anything at all except the outside.
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Though we did enjoy Delhi a fair deal, this is where we experienced the worst scamming, lying, cheating and deceitful tactics we have ever experienced in our lives. It’s incessant and it seems like everyone in Delhi has that talent. Being the savvy and experienced travelers, we can proudly say that we were not victims to any of these trickeries. We had done our homework and we were not going to get bamboozled. Here are a few of these experiences…..

To start, the expensive laundry service we used tried to take advantage of us. Not only did they overcharged us but they returned our laundry late, unfolded, and obviously unwashed. We forced them to take it back and clean it again.

Tuk-tuk drivers will never use their meters for foreigners. They will always ask you five to twenty times the regular rate. If you are not wise you may end up paying that if you do not negotiate and agree upon a price before leaving.

There are a thousands of travel agents in Delhi and competition is fierce. Unfortunately they compete between each other using sleazy tactics rather than quality and service. These agents will always kiss your ass and embellish everything trying to sell you overpriced tours and hotels “deals”. They all claim that their neighbour is screwing us that that they are the honest ones.

Every time we used your guide book in the open, someone would come up to us and offer help. The problem is that this “help” was never genuine and always came with a sales pitch to go here or there, or use this or that service. Basically these types were trying to lead us to a travel agent, hotel or restaurant where they could earn a commission.

Several travel agents we encountered used a sleazy tactic where they explained to us that their computerized system used to book train tickets was uncharacteristically running slow. While we waited for the system to go back online the agent would try to convince us to hire a driver for a tour of Rajasthan rather than take the train. When we declined the train ticket system would suddenly no longer work at all and we were explained have to come back a later time to buy them.

Trying to get to the train station to buy our onward train tickets was frustrating. Claiming we can purchase train tickets at the true price, a tuk-tuk driver convinced us to go to an ‘official’ government travel office rather than the train station which was farther away. We quickly discovered that these ‘official’ agents aren’t official at all and the train tickets offered are double the normal rate. To add injury to insult, when the agents there realized that we have done our research and knew the actual price of the tickets, they told us that their printer wasn’t working and that we’d have to come back in a few hours. Essentially they didn’t want our business because they couldn’t scam us enough.
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Here are some more interesting things we saw/experienced in Delhi:

- People in Delhi don’t really listen to the words that are coming out of your mouth. They don’t care what you want or need, they just want to sell you what they have.

- At a subway station we saw two women holding each other at the bottom of an escalator for several minutes, looking totally confused and petrified. They had no idea how to use an escalator. We assumed they were form the countryside as they had obviously never been on one before and were so scared to step on it. They finally got on but only because some man had to push them while yelling instructions at them.

- We finally indulged ourselves with Indian sweets like Barfi. They look great and and they taste awesome! We regret not having tried them sooner. DSC06778.jpg

- Security is very bizarre in Delhi (like many places in India). You find metal detectors and will get frisked everywhere you go including subways, parks, temples, museums, and even McDonald’s. At subway stations and tourist sites it is not uncommon to see military men with machine guns behind a wall of sand bags. However, they don’t have crossing lights at crazy busy intersections and people have to run fearing for their lives every time they cross the streets. Also they don’t have any safety guidelines at their construction sites. You have to dodge broken glass, tools, wires, bamboo installations all the while looking up to make sure nothing falls on your head. I failed at the latter.

That’s it for Delhi! Next is Rajasthan where we are planning to visit Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur for 9 days.

Thanh and Mark
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Posted by malmn 20:24 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

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