Thursday, October 30, 2008

I hate India, I love India. I know I want to come back again. (Part II)


We arrived at Calcutta airport in the middle of the night. Bubu, our Indian guide, was there to meet us. Four backpacks and six people were stuffed into ONE taxi. The first impression of Calcutta is rows and rows of people sleeping on the pavement. We slept a few hours and did a little exploring of Calcutta. In the evening we crossed the famous Howrah bridge and spent some time waiting for the train on Howrah station. An incredible place, people sleeping, sitting everywhere. Little children on their own, lying on the pavement.


After a long night in the train we met our cook and chauffeur. Drove a few hours and stopped to take a shower and eat something in a hotel. In the afternoon we arrived at Nrusinghanath. We are staying in a very basic building. We spent the evening in the temple. Had dinner there and talked to the priests and sadhus. Bubu was our translator. They made music for us and we sang our National hymn. They seemed to like it. They nodded when we told we had to spent 10 hours in a plane to arrive in India. I doubt they understood, they never travel further away than the next village. They definitely were not able to understand we have no personal teacher, someone who teaches you the meaning of life. In their vision it's not possible to have no religion. Two so different worlds gathered in the yard of a temple.


I'm sitting under a tree, next to a small waterfall. Surrounded by about 30 monkeys and 20 men staring at me. Omez is cooking our lunch, The water for cooking comes straight from the river. Ok, we'll survive, I hope. He makes a delicious chai. We eat a lot of tomatoes, spiced with garlic and ginger. After lunch we met a few people of the Mahima Alekh group. They grow their hair, they dress in pieces of bark and their only form of transport are their feet (I saw one on the back of a bicycle, well this is India). We're sleeping in a real guest house tonight. We had dinner in a restaurant with a tablecloth made of old newspapers.


Before we left this morning we made a walk through Bhawanipatna, a pleasant little town. We had a good day of travel. Made our first stop in a village which was never visited by tourists. We stopped at the beginning of the village and got out of our minibus, after 200 meters we were surrounded by the whole population. When we did one step the crowd gave way like the Red sea. There was a nice little market. The colors of the vegetables are beautiful, as are the colors of the sari's the women are wearing. Back on the road again we saw a tribal altar. They had offered a goat, much to the joy of the ants. In the afternoon Bubu took us to an ashram and we had an interesting conversation with a guru. The man is able to stand on his head for six hours. He was very glad with the reading glasses Pim and Niekje gave him.


We left this morning for Ankadeli, nearby was a village with a tribal market. Once a week the tribal people, Bonda's, come down the hills to the village to sell their home made alcohol. They drink like crazy. We had to travel with a policeman because of the trouble the Bonda men are causing sometimes when they are drunk. Although the men don't wear the original dress anymore they still carry the bow and arrow. The women are beautiful in their colorful necklaces. Bubu bought a bowl of alcohol and served it to the people, we drank together and the atmosphere was pleasant enough to make some pictures (they do not always like that). We had lunch in the village, a few vegetables, potato's, and the head of a fish with big teeth in it. I skipped the fish. After that a walk to a waterfall. At first we protested, we were too tired for a long walk, but the reward was great. After a rest at the waterfall a walk through the rice paddy's up to our knees in the mud, but Bubu was right again we arrived in a little village with beautiful children. A very old man and woman sang a song for us, good voices despite the alcohol and big cigars. It was kind of moving, sitting under a big tree, hearing these people sing, sharing a drink of alcohol and some corncobs with them. Our worlds are so different.

We are staying in an inspection bungalow, a legacy of the British government. We are not allowed outside at night because of the bears. What bothers me more are the big spiders. We had a nice night with Omez en Nadjir singing and playing. I laughed till tears were running out of my eyes.


On our way to Gupteswar wise proverbs along the road. Visited a cave and a temple. It's a bit strange to see Bubu paying respect to the gods. In his way of living he is so modern, but in his thinking he is still a brahman. This evening we talked about the differences between our countries, about life and death, marriage, health care, religion. I learn a lot about India thanks to Bubu.

India feels good again, it makes me realize what is really important in life.
We are staying in a kind of Inspection bungalow again. No electricity, no water, but we have the river to take a bath. There is one room with a lot of beds, but Bubu is sleeping in his tent, Nadjir in the bus and Omez on the floor in the hallway. Omez doesn't smoke when Bubu is around, it's impolite to smoke in the company of your boss. This morning we all got a flower from Nadjir and Omez. They have a little surprise for us every day.


We drove to a village were a fairly developed tribe is living. They are dominated by a few "untouchables" who are clearly the rich people of the village. We are invited for tea and dinner, so we will go back there later in the day. We have lunch on a hilltop, beautiful view. A few locals guide us to the next village. A poor one, very dirty and a lot of dirty pigs walking around. Once part of the village was converted to christianity. There is not much left of the church, but there is an advantage: they celebrate christian AND tribal festivals, double fun. The tribal people have a darker skin than Hindu's and their hair is curly, they look a lot like aboriginals (they are in fact related). One child is obviously ill, she looks yellow, anemic and dehydrated. I ask Bubu about the health care in this village, there is none, only a tribal doctor. Bubu offers to let the child go to the hospital in a nearby village on his costs (200 Rupee, 5$). There is a discussion with the father of the child, all the village men are joining the conversation. At last we understand the father thinks he has to become a christian when he accepts the offer. Bubu convinces him of the contrary and the necessary arrangements are made.

Pim lets the men take a look through his binoculars, they are surprised by what they see and burst out laughing. We get a drink of alcohol fresh from the palm tree.
Back to the first village, it's getting dark and we are tired and very dirty. We go to a little waterfall to take a bath, fortunately the village people give us a little privacy. We enjoy the water like little children, but by the time we are dressed again in our stinking clothes the sand and mud is all over our bodies again.

The woman who invited us is cooking together with her two nieces. She is a strong woman who laughs a lot, around 45 years old and a widow for 12 years. We sit with them in the kitchen, learn some Orya words. most of the time they speak Orya and we speak Dutch to them. It doesn't matter, in a way we understand each other. It's so safe, secure, warm in this kitchen, I want to stay there forever. We have a nice dinner from a fresh banana leaf, stared at by all the children of the village, an Indian art movie. We give a concert of children songs. They ask for more, how is it possible they like this? They probably think this is the highest form of culture in Holland. We go to an open space in the village and there the music starts, a lot of noise and a lot of rhythm. The drums are tuned by holding them above a fire. The dancing starts and it is inevitable, we have to join. My god, they dance like crazy, the speed is killing and it doesn't seem to stop. It are a kind of row dances, escape is impossible. We lose litres of sweat, my feet are on fire.'s great fun. Around twelve Bubu tells them these weak Dutch people have to catch some sleep. The oil lamps are lightened up, so they can watch us while we get into our sleeping bags on the veranda. It's a small space, it's almost impossible to turn around without falling off. Every muscle in my body hurts. It's going to be a long, long night.


At five we woke up. The crowd gathered to see us getting out of our sleeping bags, and the women joined us in our search for a toilet, it happened to be behind the water buffalo. After a cup of chai we have to say goodbye. Our hostess puts her arms around me, I have to swallow a few times. Well we go.

Near a dam in the river we take a bath. We are tired and dirty. The effect of the bath lasts for about 15 minutes. We sleep in the bus even the song "Made in India" isn't able to keep us awake. At the next market Omez buys three chickens, still alive, they disappear under his chair and will be our dinner. We arrive at an inspection bungalow and the idea of a mandi bath makes us lyrical. But Bubu has other plans. Omez is going to cook and we are going to a market. There we discover some T-shirts, what a joy, a clean shirt. We go to a village where the jewellery of the Khonda tribe is made. They make moulds of resin and fill them with a mix of copper, bronze and tin. In this way they make "watches", just to wear them as decoration. They don't need a ticking watch, they live by the rhythm of the earth.
Bubu, Pim and Simonne are going to a Khond village (they were not allowed to enter the village, the atmosphere was aggressive), the rest of us stay at the veranda to read and write in the company of very big beetles.


This morning our very last tribal market. We walk uphill to see the Khond coming down with their merchandise. Their bodies are very muscular and they look unapproachable. They don't like to be photographed. They look beautiful in their "white" clothes. They try to sell as much as possible on their way down, if it doesn't work out they try it again at the platform of the railway station and at last they go to the market. They don't like to be around Hindu's or people of other tribes. A local guide asks me to roll a cigarette for him, he is pleased with the result.

Now we are staying in a very good guest house. We spent a lot of time in the sulphur spring. Even my nails are clean now. Nadjir is listening to my walkman. I think he likes Bach.

During this trip I have seen villages, people and a way of living that are going to disappear. The Indian government is taking the woods away from the tribal people, they pay the women to wear a sari instead of their original clothes. I want to thank Bubu for his way of travelling with us, full of respect for the local people, cautious not to damage their culture and dignity. We called him our carefully, careless Ray Ban yogi.

I hate India, I love India. I know I want to come back again.


Survived the flight. Found the bus from the airport to Pahar Ganj and found a guest house. When I got out of the plane the typical smell of Delhi was present again. I'm alright but Delhi is literally in my nostrils: dust and diesel. Of course every indian guy here in the streets has a friend in Amsterdam. I bought a train ticket to Udaipur and got "Trains at a glance" from Americans who were leaving the country. That was nice, because it's sold out and it's very handy to have.

The first song on the tape I got from Marc is "Hunting tigers out in India" very funny (and true). It made my day. I'm tired and glad I'm going to Udaipur tomorrow. It's a long time on the train (20 hours) but Delhi is too big, too awful now.


Surai Rohilla station. Two hours before the train is leaving. Children are looking how I am writing. The children are a relief. They laugh and that's exactly what they mean. Much easier to cope with than the staring men who are always scratching their crotches. It's difficult to find my place in this world, so different from my own. It will take some time. Well, I found my place in the train, thats one thing. I like it, sitting and looking at the landscape, the people.

The night in the train was cold, very cold, but there is Udaipur to comfort me. Very glad with my guest house and warm feet. The waiter on the rooftop restaurant is about ten years old. What do you mean child labour?

I slept and slept and slept last night, good for my cold. Went to the City Palace, what a wealth. It's built up and around a little hill, the result is a garden with big trees on the third floor of the palace. At first I didn't even realize how peculiar this is. There are beautiful hand painted tapestries, very colourful and rich in detail.

Feeling a lot better after a visit to a hairdresser. It took only five minutes to cut my hair with very big scissors. The massage of head, shoulders, back and arms lasted a lot longer and was very relaxing. All this for the price of 1.5$. Walked around a lot. This is a beautiful village, almost all the buildings are white. The Bond film Octopussy was filmed here and you can still watch it during dinner in a lot of restaurants.

A wedding procession just passed, the generator for the electric lights almost makes more noise than the band.

Booked the night bus to Jaisalmer. They say it's going to take 11 hours, but I guess it will be a bit more. Went to a crafts village this morning. The biggest attraction was the driver of the tuk tuk. I think he is around fifty years old and it's a very nice man. It's a pity his english is limited, he says 'this way, this year' every other two words. No idea what he means by that. He laughs a lot. Took the boat to Nehru park, a little island in the lake. Children asked me if I could write Hindi: no only a little bit of Sanskrit. Our main festival: the queens birthday. My caste, well thats a tough question, for them I am a Dalit (Harijan, untouchable) because I'm not a Hindu. When I look out of my window in the guest house I can see a building under construction. The women carry bowls with cement and stones up and down rickety ladders.

'This way this year' took me to the monsoon palace in the afternoon. It's built upon a hill and we had to stop a few times to let the engine of his tuk tuk cool down. Good moments to smoke a bidi together. The palace is old and neglected, but there is still a sense of the former beauty. From the palace you have a good view over the lake and the city.

I'm adjusting to India again, it feels good.

'This way this year' was determined to show me a few tigers in a cage today. I seem to have a special relation with tigers this trip. Wrote a few postcards and watched them being stamped (they sometimes like to sell the stamps more than one time). Packed my backpack. 'This way this year' brought me to the bus station. An embrace and good wishes.


The bus trip of 11 hours took 15 hours. I was the only woman in a bus full of Indian men. I was glad it was dark during the chai stops that made it easier to find a 'toilet' while all the men were following me with their eyes (well, no problem, it were only their eyes). The man who sat next to me pretended he slept while he tried to put his head on my shoulder. I'm white, I'm a woman, I'm travelling alone so why shouldn't he? I can't imagine he would do the same if an Indian woman was sitting next to him.

In Jodhpur I had to change buses and met an English couple. They got enraged about the 5 extra Rupee we had to pay for our backpacks. Well, it's corrupt, but this is India... Live with it or leave it. Didn't sleep on the bus thanks to the Hindi music played at maximum volume. So in my thoughts I wrote letters to my friends, a nice way to spend the time. During the daylight there was the infertility of the earth to look at. Upon arrival in Jaisalmer the touts were a real "treat". The Lonely Planet writes about them, but it was worse than I expected. The policemen, who are supposed to protect you, weren't very active. But I survived, and after a bath with a bucket hot water I'm feeling like a human being again.

Met an American woman (Trish) on the rooftop of the guest house. It's nice to talk to someone about India, to laugh about it and try to understand why things are as they are in this country. And how are things really? It's so difficult to understand most of the time. When I think I understand something I immediatly discover a whole new world underneath which is completely different from my own.

This town looks as if it belongs in a fairy tale. The view from the roof is amazing. All the yellow sandstone houses, the fort, surrounded by the desert. There is a woman singing downstairs.

Planned a desert trip together with Trish. It's good to do this together. Spent the whole day walking around in the alleys. Drank a chai with an embroidery seller. We talked about the problems between India and Pakistan, BJP and Congress party. He explained the differences between Muslim and Hindu embroidery. I get lost in the alleys after 5 minutes, but I like to get lost. In this town it's possible to sit on a doorstep, watch life go by without being bothered all the time. The women are very colourful in their sari's. The carved sandstone is beautiful. Especially the haveli's are richly decorated. The life the women had to live inside the haveli's isn't very attractive but the buildings are fantastic.

Had dinner together with Trish, we talk about movies, books, India and life. We laugh a lot.

I bought a paper today, no war between America and Iraq, not yet. Thats what travellers ask each other: Is there already a war going on? In the paper a very detailed coverage of the death of a famous cricket player. About his medical condition, how they stopped the ventilator after talking to his wife and some VIP's. Such an article is unthinkable in Holland.

Good heavens those were the first and the last two days on a camel in my life. They are so BBBIIIGGG. After two hours there is only one thing you want: to get of and put your legs together. But it was FFFUUUNNN. Trish and I each had our own camel, the two camel drivers shared one. It's a real art to get up and down. They are a bit clumsy, make a lot of noise sometimes and they smell peculiar (you can also say they stink). It's hot in the desert, really hot and there are a lot of beautiful birds. In the evening we cooked dahl, rice and chapatti's. Harim had a splinter in his hand. He took it out with a needle, put the needle in his ear and rubbed the smear on the wound. I think I'm going to propose this treatment at home, it's cheap and it probably works. The night was cold. We slept up and under a few blankets. A lot of stars.

The second day started a bit frightening because my male camel saw a few females and he accelerated like a Porsche in the wrong direction. It took some power of persuasion to get him back on the track. Eventually he listened to the camel drivers. The problem was I was on top of the camel when he wanted to go on his honeymoon.

In a little village we met an old lady, she talked and talked to us in her own language. I think it was impossible for her to imagine some people speak another language.

Harim did the trick with the ring and the rope. I was touched and amazed to see it here in the desert. I know this trick for so many years, it's a part of my childhood, a part of my father. Well, I enjoyed these days in the desert very much, just the four of us and the camels. A bucket hot water, a dinner together with Trish, and a good night sleep is all I need now. The boy who takes care of the laundry, the Pepsi, the bucket hot water earns 500 Rupee a month (13$). A camel costs around 250$. Strange idea, such a huge animal for this price.
The fruit and vegetables taste very good. Tomatoes are real red and orange juice is real orange, not yellow. Drank a chai with the embroidery seller again. Talked about his farm.

There is a very nice bookshop in town. The problem with books is I want to keep them, especially the nonfiction about India and they are heavy.


Said goodbye to Trish this morning and got on the bus to Jodhpur. A lot of women in Purdah on the bus, that's something you rarely see in the cities. Jodhpur is a big city and I'm not in the mood for it. Going to Pushkar tomorrow. I was arranging my bus ticket in the guest house when I met a German woman, around 30 years old, with her private chauffeur. She is doing North and South India in 3 weeks by car. The driver asked me if I wanted a ride to Pushkar, we made a deal for 200 Rupee.

A very luxury trip to Pushkar, the whole back seat of the car for me alone. But not my style, someone calling you memsahib. The German woman studied Hindi during the trip. She didn't see the harvesting. How women in vivid coloured sari's separated the wheat from the chaff by throwing it in the air, letting the wind do the job. The villages, the birds, the children, the poverty. Well... I don't speak Hindi. I'm glad to be on my own again. I'm in a very big room, going to look for something else tomorrow. Met two Canadian girls during dinner, we had a nice evening together.
Found a nice, cheap guest house this morning. Pushkar is a good little town to walk around a lot, and that's what I'm doing. It's a place of pilgrimage so there are a lot of sadhu's around. I did a Puja (kind of prayer and you get a blessing) by the lake, just for fun. They want a donation and talk in dollars. They try some emotional blackmail. Hinduism is a difficult religion with a lot of mystical aspects. The first time I visited India, I was impressed by it. Now I see the other sides. The cheating, blackmailing, the bad position of the women, the caste system and the effect of this system on the society.

Three days in Pushkar is enough for me. I want to move on so I booked the train to Delhi. That's the easiest way to Amritsar. Sarah and Christy are taking the train too. I got my train ticket just in time to catch the bus to the station in Ajmer. Real Indian timing. I like the atmosphere of the Indian railway stations, especially during the evening. A lot of people with loads of luggage, chai and food vendors. And everybody waits with a kind of resignation for a train which is by definition hours overdue.

DELHI again

I slept a few hours during the night on the train. I even seem to get used to all the people and the noise they make on an Indian train. I have the kind off 'Delhian' room where you don't want to be. I don't want to know what's on the walls beside the paint, the toilet doesn't flush, the mattress is damp, the cushion is filthy, there is a lot of noise and of window. But I'm having a good time. Had a good breakfast together with Sarah and Christy. Went to the Red fort, a nice place to sit on the grass for a while. After that to the Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in Delhi. Like the Red fort (and the Taj Mahal in Agra) it is built by Sjah Jahan. The mosque is impressive. But more impressive was the stench in the neighborhood nearby where they sold chickens. I like those impressive buildings but what I like most is walking in the streets to see daily life.

Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj is beautiful in the evening. Little candles to light the stands. The packages with shampoo and paan glitter even more than during daytime, the flames under the wok, the smell of fresh fried snacks. The whispering when you pass: "Change money, buy hashish?".

Impossible city, so full of life and death.


Experienced the hospitality of the Sikh during the train trip. They offered me something to eat when they bought something or when they opened their packages with home cooked food. It's a pity they didn't speak english because I have a few questions about the Sikh faith. The women seem to have more freedom than Muslim and Hindu women. A lot of vendors and beggars on the train, even two hijra's (transvestites, sometimes eunuchs).

The mentality is completely different in this part of India. It takes some time to get used to it. People are always ready to help, without expecting something in return. It is also a "rich" part of India.

There are buses to Pathankot so I went to the bus station to find out which one to take. Well, the bus station is one big chaos. I found an enquiry office. They phoned the chief of information and I got him on the phone personally. Finally found out there is one bus a day to Dharamsala but it is still not clear where I can buy a ticket. So I went to the train station, there is a train to Pathankot and I can take the bus from there. I had a very nice evening, talked to the lady of the guest house, she told me a lot about the Sikh religion. Women are more free in this religion, but also the Hindu women have more freedom in this part of India. Problems between Hindu and Sikh people exist more on a political level than in daily life.

Spent the rest of the evening in the pleasant company of a Canadian couple and an Englishman. A lot of humour. Had my first whisky in weeks. And what a blessing, the Dalai Lama starts his new year lectures when I'm in Dharamsala.

I woke up with a cold. It is difficult to stay healthy in this country. Went to the Golden Temple together with Adam. There is a very relaxed atmosphere on the grounds of the temple. The temple itself is beautiful and richly covered with gold. I went inside where a kind of priests are reciting from the holy book of the Sikhs. People give you a friendly nod. Especially the older Sikh men are impressive, with their beard and turban. On the grounds is a kitchen where they cook all the food for the pilgrims. There is a very huge pan in which they cook dahl, and the food is free for everybody. Just outside the temple grounds they are building a guest house for the pilgrims. Everybody ques to carry a few stones or a bucket with sand.
This evening we thought we saw a big firework in the street but it was a short-circuit. A big ball of fire on a wall.

The cook offered to buy me a train ticket in the morning. I accepted his offer but I think I have a problem now, he has a very tight schedule.


I was right about the problem. At 8 o'clock no cook, no breakfast no train ticket. The cook finally arrived at 8.45 without a train ticket. So I got on a rickshaw and asked the guy to hurry to the station. I'm lucky to be alive after that ride. It is a suicide attempt to ask them to hurry. Just in time to buy a ticket and get on the train. The missed breakfast wasn't a problem at all. People on the train offered me bananas.

The right attitude is a problem in this part of India. I'm used to arrange everything by myself because that's the only way to know it IS arranged. Here, people are so willing to help, you begin to rely on them. I should have known by now that I have a problem when they say: no problem.

The train was nice. I like the trains, with the big variety of people. After the train 3 hours on a very crowded bus. Three people and my backpack on a seat barely big enough for two. A steep and winding road, Indian driving style. The second suicide attempt in one day.

When I finally arrived in McLeod Ganj it took me 2 hours to find a room. Ended up in Bhagsu, a 20 minutes walk from McLeod, a very quiet place up in the mountains.
I went to the monastery this morning. Just sat on the stairs and listened to the prayers of the monks. Dark voices, a very special sound. The stairs are covered with red fluffs from the monk's habits.

In the afternoon there was a concert for the freedom of Tibet with Joan Osborne. At the start they sang the Tibetan national hymn, the monk who stood behind me joined the singing in a soft voice. He told me in poor english how they had built the monastery and made Dharamsala famous in the whole world.

It's bad weather for almost two days now. It's raining and it's cold, very cold. It's almost impossible to follow the lectures of the Dalai lama in this weather. I bought a bus ticket to Delhi. Went to the monastery to follow the translation in english of a lecture. When the lecture was done I saw the Dalai Lama. His radiation is enormous.

It's difficult to adjust to Delhi again after the peace and quiet of McLeod Ganj and the surrounding mountains. Bought a train ticket to Varanasi.


A typical Indian train trip, with lots of people sleeping on the most impossible spots. I'm in a nice guest house next to the burning ghat. A balcony with a view on the Ganges and apes who are trying to steal my drying clothes. Varanasi didn't lose its magic in the last two years. Benares the city where apes and rats disappear quickly before your feet and the cows stand still blocking the small alleys. The city where the blown up dead body of a child floats in the Ganges next to the marigolds.

Walking on the ghats I met Bicky, a boy of ten years old who wanted to guide me to a few temples. He was very good company. He will become a great Don Juan, businessman and philosopher. "Money comes more times in life, happiness only once" he said, and "No marriage, that's good, not too much talking, no bla bla bla".
Spent the evening on the ghats. A beautiful girl tried to sell me a butter lamp with marigolds "Put on mother Ganga, for good luck, good Kharma". I don't believe in Kharma, I try to make my own Kharma.

Why do they call Benares the City of Light? It's one power cut after the other.
I'm very tired of Indian life It's unbelievable how much energy it takes. "Look in my silk shop, "need a rickshaw", "very cheap, just look", "what's your name", "What's your country", "where you going". The same conversations , a million times a day. I like spending time with the children. So that's what I do, walking on the ghats, talking and playing with the children, looking, absorbing the magic of this city.

I took a cycle rickshaw to the station this morning. It's a miracle I survived the trip. I was lucky to have the last place on the train to Agra tomorrow. I want to see the Taj Mahal again.


I spent yesterday waiting for the train to come. Partly in the waiting room in the company of a very brave family of little mice. They crawled into my shoes and backpack. On the train I had a good conversation with a man. We talked about the differences between our countries, about family life, about the position of women and about the writer Vikram Seth. He knew his books. Since yesterday I have a real 'Delhibelly'. That's not so nice. I wanted to go to the Taj this afternoon, but I was too sick. Try again in the evening when it's cooler.

And there she stood, as beautiful as three years ago. It's a rich feeling to see her again. I'm not crazy about buildings, but this one is of such a tranquil beauty. To see the colours change in the light of the setting sun. Just sit and look at this example of perfection. It is as if the world ends behind the Taj.

There are even more power cuts here in Agra than in Varanasi. And I think they invented the fly here, there is an enormous population of them.

Went to the Itimad-ud-daulah (baby Taj). It doesn't look like the Taj, it's more human, more of this earth. A beautiful building.
One more visit to the real Taj, tomorrow my last train trip back to Delhi.

DELHI for the last time

Sitting on the roof terrace of Anoop's, enjoying a big banana lassi. My last days in India and I learned to love Pahar Ganj. I like walking around here, and I like the incredible street life of this city. Met the English people I met in Dharamsala again. We enjoyed dinner together.

Bahai house of worship, I want to worship life here. The rickshaw trip back from Bahai house was really Indian. We got out of petrol halfway and had to walk a few K. The driver wouldn't let me walk it was embarrassing.

Had a long talk with Ian about what India does to you. I don't like it that it makes me pitiless sometimes. I had to have that attitude to "survive" sometimes, but I want to be compassionate. This country is too much sometimes. I HATE INDIA, I LOVE INDIA. I know I want to come back again.

Burma Trip: Yangon, Mandalay, Pyin U Lwin, Bagan


It was raining cats and dogs when we left Holland. It feels good to be away. Yangon, Sunflower Hotel. We took a taxi from the airport into town. The chauffeur showed us the different hotels on our list and after we had chosen one he brought us to a place where we could change money on the black market. Cars drive on the right side of the road, a strange detail is that the steering wheel of the car is also on the right side.

We slept a few hours and ate biryani. Yangon is crowded, the real Asia. It is more like India than like Thailand. I feel at home and at ease when we stroll on the streets in the evening. The people are very friendly and they don't hassle you. It is clear that this is a poor country.

Had a good night. We are going to need it. We have to catch the bus to Mandalay at five PM. Yangon is okay but there is not much to see and we have to stay here on the way back.

Shwedagon paya is huge and all the gold, glittering in the sun, is almost painful to the eyes. In travel guides they write about it in the way they write about the Taj Mahal. What is the matter with me? Am I still too tired from the flight? Is my mind still in Holland? This Shwedagon Paya doesn't reach my soul at all! On the streets you can buy fried grasshoppers. They showed me how to eat them, you tear off the wings and put the whole insect in your mouth. We took an Indian thali instead.


The bus was okay and the guest house (Royal guest house) is fine. Traveling takes a lot of energy, it makes me forget everything else.

Do India and Burma so look alike because they both are poor countries? Nothing seems to leave a factory in a brand new state. The coloured lights on the ceiling of the bus are real Asian, as are the lights on the side of big trucks.

We visited the Royal Palace. It demanded more paperwork to enter this building than to pass customs. It is a beautiful building but the thought that it is rebuilt using forced labour makes me feel uneasy. On the way to the palace we had a chat with a former policeman. He had the hope that this country will become a democracy sometime in the future. Now everything is strictly arranged by the rules of the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration). Silent expressions of this disgusting regime are the slogans, sometimes in english, on signs.

After breakfast we tried to find the bus to Mandalay Hill, but we didn't succeed, too difficult to find out which bus or pick up truck goes to our destination. We asked a man to help us. He answered in perfect english, but what he said was complete nonsense. His breath smelled of alcohol. He told us that he was a professor at the university, teaching english, but that the university was closed now. He left us with the excuse that "he had another fish to fry". We hired bicycles and this turned out to be the ideal form of transport. Even I can find my way in Mandalay because of the numbered streets.

On top of Mandalay Hill it is a real fun fair, food stalls and souvenir sellers. On the way up there is some devotion. There are almost no other tourists. We visited also some paya's in the neighbour hood of Mandalay Hill. The entrance fees are high 3-5 $ and we know the only benefiter is the SLORC, so we try to avoid paying by using side entrances. Sometimes we succeed.

This morning we went together to Mahamuni Paya. I decided that I wanted to spent more time there so our ways parted. The atmosphere is very friendly in this paya. The Mahamuni Buddha is impressive because of all the glittering gold and the devoted people paying their respect. I spent a lot of time strolling on the temple grounds.

I cycled to the hospital. I promised a friend back home to make a picture of an ambulance so that was a good excuse to visit the hospital. I found an ambulance but the people around it didn't understand what I wanted. They took me to a doctor in a kind of emergency unit. He spoke two words of english and didn't understand me either, but it gave me the opportunity to make some pictures. I found an internal ward, old and dark and filthy. There was a nurse who spoke some english. She told me what the patients where suffering from and what treatment they got. They still drain as a cure for hypertension. Walking around I met a French engineer. He and his colleagues were installing a generator for the hospital. There is an alliance between this hospital and a French university. Every year the engineers come to Burma for a few weeks to make some improvements to the hospital. The engineer showed me the new buildings and equipment they installed during the past few years. It looked very good. Simple, but clean and working. This seems to be a good way to help these people. After the visit to the hospital I cycled to the river. A very, very poor neighborhood. The scenery reminded me of Laos.


We took the pick up truck to Pyin U Lwin. On the way up you see the poverty and when you keep your eyes open you see the forced labour. I had a conversation with the chauffeur about Dutch football. Here they play golf he said, but only the rich people and the army people. Pyin U Lwin is a bit disappointing. Maybe it is the guest house where we are staying (Ruby guest house). It is depressing and dirty. We spent a few hours on the market. I like Asian markets, it are the best places to see the local people and there is always something amusing to discover. We had tea at a tea shop. After a while an elderly woman joined us at our small table on the pavement. She began to talk to us in Queens English, ordered more tea and sweets and told us about her life. Her name was Sheila and she was in her seventies. Between the lines she fully admitted that she used her education to talk to foreigners and ask them to support her with a few dollars. I really enjoyed her style. During the evening Pyin U Lwin changed from a dull town into an entertaining place to walk around. Some people here seem a bit shady.

MANDALAY (again)

Early in the morning Pyin U Lwin looked a bit like a desolated village in a wild west movie. A very peculiar atmosphere. We had a nice breakfast of banana parati and milk tea. It is completely accepted in this country that I'm in charge of the money and not Albert. We took the pick up truck to Mandalay.

On my own. First to the market, Chinese style and that means load and loads of the same stuff. Now I'm on the grounds of a beautiful paya. Lots of buddha's, the tinkling of bells, shade of old trees, the buzzing of children voices and a little breeze. There is a beautiful tiled floor in pastel colors. I found a place to sit with a view on a silver Buddha and two old women. I want to stay here for the rest of my life and forget all my silly (and serious) worries.

In the afternoon we spent some time in a tea shop. Being small is a blessing when you have to sit on these small, low stools. First a Sikh takes a seat at "our" table. He has a mobile phone and drinks his tea in a hurry but he is hospitable as his faith demands him to be and he insists on paying for our tea and sweets. Our next companion was a vicar who spoke a little English but it was almost impossible to understand what he was trying to tell us.

During my absence this morning Albert was offered a Burmese woman by a taxi chauffeur. We already made jokes about the purpose of the cell like rooms on the first floor of our guest house but they are seriously used by prostitutes.

We had dinner in a Shan restaurant and afterwards we walked into a kind of street festival, fun fair. A few merry go rounds and lots of children exploiting home made games. A boy of about 7 years old acted as a fully qualified croupier in a kind of roulette game. They sold paya's made of cigarette cartons and of course lots of snacks. A little boy and girl were singing and making music with little drums, rattles and bells. It was moving to hear these clear voices and see these big brown eyes, surrounded by kohl, in the small faces. Very nice to walk around and smile back at all those smiling people. Like this morning on the temple grounds it is impossible to catch the atmosphere in a photograph, so my camera stays in my bag and with all my senses I enjoy this moment and store it in my heart.

A day of leisure but with a lot of information about the awful circumstances the people are living in. There is a lot of hunger up in the hills. There is enough rice in Mandalay but the people are not allowed to bring it into the hills. The government takes the rice. People have to pay for all the medicines they need, also when they are admitted in a hospital. The medication costs a lot of money and is of very poor quality. Almost everything I have seen is much older than the date of expiring and it is certainly not stored in a refrigerator. The universities are closed since 1996. The government blames Aung San Suu Kyi. The real reason is that it is a threat to have all students gathered in one place. Besides it is more safe to keep the people ignorant. Not that the universities were that good. They study chemistry without ever seeing a laboratory on the inside. Doing an exam implied learning by heart a part of a text and reciting it (or you could pay your way out). The percentage that succeeded was high, good for the statistics.


We took the slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan. It takes a whole day, but it was nice to stare at the riverbanks. A lot of poverty on the banks and on the boat itself. People searched the wastebasket on the tourist deck, hoping to find something useful.

We spent the day cycling around, visiting paya's. This place is incredibly full of them. It looks like a moon landscape scattered with paya's and the remains of them. Some are really impressive. I liked the Ananda paya most of all. It is very big and there are four beautiful standing Buddha's inside. One of them has the Abhaya mudra. Today we met Maung Maung a horse cart driver. This evening he picked us up and we went to his village. On the veranda of his bamboo house we were spoilt with a fantastic dinner. From the other side of the table the whole family watched us eating. It made me feel uneasy. We tried to eat enough to be polite and to leave a lot on the table knowing that they would eat it when we were gone.

Today we visited again some paya's, including Shwezigon Paya. It is described as the most beautiful paya of Bagan. And yes, it is spectacular with all its gold glittering in the sun, but it didn't move me like the Ananda paya did. We spent some time sitting in the shadow, looking at this building, talking about religion being opium for/from the people.


At five in the morning we took the bus to the Lake district. The road was in a poor condition sometimes and the suspension system of the bus not too good, but the scenery was beautiful.

Didn't do much today. Cycled around. It is not possible to reach the lake on a bicycle. Why should you make a road when you have a river and a boat?! It took quite a few dead end roads before Albert realized the logic of this situation. We talked a lot today about work, plans for the future, travelling together for a year or so. We have fun. This trip is good for both of us.

What do they do with the corps when somebody dies? I didn't see grave yards or cremation sites. The lady of the guest house has a heart condition. She had to pay $15 for an ECG and a blood test. That's a lot of money in this country. She showed me all the tablets she is taking and asked me for an explanation of their effects.

Today we made a boat trip. First to a market, partly a tourist trap, but with a lot of local people. A little boy followed me for about 15 minutes, saying nothing, only staring at me. I talked to him in Dutch and even that didn't change the expression on his face. At last he said "Hello" and disappeared. On this market you could buy all kinds of intra venous medication (exp. date: 1997). We visited an almost deserted village. There was a long gallery up a hill finally arriving at a small paya. This paya was surrounded by a lot of little stupa's, a lot of them were almost overgrown. The wind made the bells on the stupa's cling, a peaceful sound. A weird place with a nice atmosphere. At the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery we saw the famous jumping cats. The cat jumps through a hoop that is hold up by a monk. Amusing, but more beautiful is the collection of Buddha's in the monastery and more interesting are the toilets. The toilets are cubicles with a kind of saloon door (western style) and a hole in the bottom right above the lake.

We did a "trekking" yesterday. The lady of the guest house who organized the hike promised us many, many villages. We saw exactly ONE village. Well it was a good fitness training. The village was very poor. The clothes the people were wearing consisted more of holes than cloth. The Lonely Planet guide names a literacy rate of 81.5%. I don't understand how they come to this high number. Most of the children I see are not going to school. The children in these kind of villages definitely never see a classroom on the inside.

We are waiting for the bus in the direction of Rangoon now. This morning we visited the market of Nyaungshwe. Beautiful people. I love markets. A little boy wanted to give us something. My first reaction is to refuse it because I expected that he wanted something in return. But he handed me a sweet and said hello, that was it. He only wanted to be friendly like the little boy who gave me a flower yesterday. This Asian country isn't spoiled yet. Please let it stay this way for some time.


The bus trip took 19 hours, but the bus was very comfortable, so no problem. On the video they showed a Sylvester Stallone movie and a Burmese version of Romeo and Juliet.

Bago is dirty and dusty and the humidity is a lot higher than at the Lake. After a few hours of sleep Manni, a trishaw driver showed us around. I knew his name from a web site about Burma and like they say he is really worth the money. His English is reasonable and he knows a lot of nice places. First we went to the Shwemawdaw Paya. Outside of it there is a sign with the text: "Please provide necessary assistance to the international travellers". It doesn't make my opinion of the government any better. Manni took us to a very big monastery. It is impressing to see all these monks study the Pali language. Even more impressive is the very big pot they use to cook food for 1000 monks. Finally we visit the reclining Buddha. Measuring 55 metres it is bigger than the one in Bangkok, but I liked that one better. Manni is a good source of information. I liked the hours we spent with him.

We booked a taxi for the trip to the balancing boulder temple of Kyaiktiyo. We leave at 7 o'clock after seeing the monks (about 500 of them) going on their alms round. It is a 2-3 hour drive. After that we have to wait for almost an hour for the truck to fill up with people before it departs for a trip uphill. Thats not the end of it. We have to walk uphill for 45 minutes before we reach the famous balancing boulder. The trip down with the truck is a good test for the stomach (and the nerves).


We have an early breakfast in the tea shop opposite the hotel. They have a remarkable cigarette lighter made of an old dynamo. It takes about 2 hours by bus from Bago to Yangon. I spent the afternoon on the market and in the Pagan bookshop. The owner sells copied hardcovers of books about Burma. He has a nice collection.

We had dinner in New Delhi restaurant. After that we went to the Kali temple. It is a bit strange to "meet" this bloodthirsty goddess in this Buddhist environment. The atmosphere in the temple is a bit mysterious. As always I am almost impressed by it. Seeing a guy playing with a computer game in the middle of the temple brings me back to earth. We walk on the streets of Yangon and have a last cup of tea in a tea shop. I love the evenings in an Asian country.

In these few weeks I learned to love the Burmese people. I admire their capability to be very friendly and cheerful despite the difficult conditions they are living in.

Amazing Thailand: Bangkok, Koh Tao, Krabi and surrounding area

A few words about Thailand

We think there are five main reasons western tourists come to Thailand; the scenery, the culture, the people, the affordability, and the food (but not necessarily in that order). All are spectacular, and Thailand remains one of the few places in the world with all of these attributes, combined with comprehensive transportation and lodging options for travelers in any budget, good medical care (if you need it), and political stability. Thailand is a traveler's paradise. On the one hand, this country does seem to be on the cutting edge of many things (more internet cafes and good public transportation, for example) and the richness of Thai beauty and culture is unsurpassed in our personal travel experience. On the other hand, (outside of Bangkok) it has the unhurried pace of a tropical paradise. To sum it up, we love Thailand.

In Thailand, two tourists can live like a modest King (and Queen) for under $50 USD per day (or $25pp) - including activities such as diving, snorkeling, cooking classes, trekking, VIP bus transportation, eating in restaurants, and staying in modest but clean hotels with en suite toilets. For a less extravagant tour, you can certainly live comfortably on much less. We've met other tourists happily spending a mere $10-$15 per day (and many of our days have been that low as well).

The economy is still on the mend from the crash in the Asian markets last year, and tourist dollars are welcome relief in many areas, as other industries struggle to regain balance during this difficult time. In general, we have been told that most average middle or working class employed Thai people make between 150 (minimum wage) and 500 Baht a day, although of course there are few upwards exceptions to this, and also, sadly, many (including educated and skilled) people not employed or employed and not even making the minimum. This seems quite low by western standards, but remember that the cost of living most places (especially outside of Bangkok) is much lower than Western Europe, Australia, or the US.

However, despite the current economic hardships, Thai people (in general) seem friendly and happy. Rightly named "the land of smiles", Sanuk (fun) is drawn out in many aspects of life. Life seems simpler, but honor, pride, respect, and loyalty seem to be important traits within each area we visit. Anger is seen as a weakness. Loss of self-control is looked down upon. Buddhism is the dominant religion, and many Thai males are expected to serve as a monk at some point in their lives (for as little as three months, or indefinitely), which brings honor to their families. (Women may also become nuns in the Buddhist religion, but we have heard it is not quite as highly regarded socially as monkhood.) Service as a nun or monk teaches self-discipline, kind heartedness, and spirituality. The Buddhist values are apparent in Thai society.

Even if you don't know a word of Thai, if you speak or understand a little English, Thailand is EASY. Thais employed in bus and train stations, travel agencies, guest houses and hotels all seem to know enough English to be able to help you. Hand gestures work when all else fails. Although, be aware that spelling becomes a most creative art with phonetic transliteration (The Thais use a different alphabet than westerners). Therefore, maps and guidebooks can be difficult to follow, as the name of a street, Wat (temple), or guesthouse will most likely be listed in any one of a number of phonetic combination. Even after over a month here, we cannot read even simple Thai signs. We are told there are over 50 letters in the Thai alphabet, and even though they look lovely when placed together, they still don't form words we can recognize. Even so, we manage to navigate ourselves to and around, with the kind help of patient Thais.

We are impressed with how many Thais speak English (how many Americans speak Thai?), but we still giggle at the typos in the English translated menus. Now, we don't hesitate to order "rarely fresh squid" and know that a woman can request "hard boy egg" without damaging her reputation. We can only imagine what horrible mistakes we make when we attempt the few Thai words we know.

We are sometimes shocked by the lack of safety standards in some forms of transportation, hotels and especially boats. For example, 1 life vest for every dozen or so passengers seems like a luxury, if it is even available, and we are yet to see a fire escape (or alarm!) on a multi-story guesthouse. Four people can and often do fit on a moped, on the highway, and without helmets. We are used to seeing monks on mopeds, sitting side-saddle on the back, and we are used to cows and water buffalo crossing highways at their leisure. A mere honk of the horn gives any driver license to pass in opposing traffic, and everyone (monks and water buffalo included) just move onto the shoulder!


To say the least, getting to Bangkok from Auckland was a journey in itself. We made a mistake calculating time zones, and what we thought was going to be a 3-hour layover in Australia was actually 7 hours. Since we didn't bother to get an Australian Visa, we could not leave Sydney's international terminal. Fortunately for us, the lady at United's "Red Carpet Room" (a lounge for business class passengers, or those with a paid membership)sympathized with us (after some begging and whining on our part) and said she was going on a break and she never saw us. Big score for the budget travelers! We never appreciated luxury so much.

We arrived in Bangkok around midnight on March 15th. We headed directly to the famous backpacker ghetto, Khao San Road. (We were told that this is not always easy to do. Many private taxi drivers will take naive and disoriented looking backpackers to a destination other than what they have requested, in order to gain commissions on overpriced and undesirable hotels). We wanted to avoid this, so splurged on the official airport taxi (a whopping 650Bhat) and had a trouble-free and very comfortable ride in an air-conditioned brand-new Mercedes. When we arrived on Khao San Road after midnight, the street was packed with partying international backpackers, food vendors, and souvenir hawkers. Note: Since then, we've taken many private taxis, and have not had this trouble. We have found the traffic in Bangkok to be a little frightening at times, but most of the Taxi drivers are friendly, usually a little bilingual (a little English if not several other languages) and responsive to fair and persistent bargaining. Fortunately for us, the third guesthouse we tried (The Nana) had a mean but sufficient room on the 5th floor (no lift) with A/C, a small balcony and private bathroom. We paid 600 Baht, or about $14 USD. This was the most expensive room we've stayed in in Thailand, and the least charming. (You can find dorm-style accommodations on Khao San road for about 100 Baht, but we did not bother, since we were not staying long.) Khao San Road is only about 2-3 blocks long, but packs a lot of action. It's lined with bars, restaurants, travel agencies, cheap guesthouses, tourist shops, massage parlors, and a host of street vendors specializing in bootleg cassette tapes and clothing items, and possibly illegal substances, even though the police station is located at the end of the road.

For our first day, we took a few tuk-tuks around town, fearing for our lives as the small, noisy vehicle maneuvered through heavy and fast traffic, getting sideways on corners, and nearly taking out a few food stalls. However, we found a more agreeable means of transportation on the canal - a long-tail boat (200 Baht for one hour). We spent hours just walking through the various open-air markets, a little overwhelmed, but very excited to be in Thailand!. Our good friend Alie met us the evening of the 16th, and after another day sightseeing (The very impressive Grand Palace) and one more night at the Nana, we all decided to head down to Koh Tao, an island in the scenic South.

Koh Tao

We caught an overnight VIP government bus from Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal to Chumphon (10pm - 4am), where we waited in a travel agency for the ferry to Koh Tao (7:30am). By 11am the next day, we were all comfortably kicking back on the beach at Ban's Diving Resort. We ended up staying on Koh Tao 11 days at Ban's Diving Resort. Cara got her Open Water Certification (finally), Joe got his Advanced Open Water, and Alie was a diving maniac, logged 18 dives, got her Advanced OW and also Rescue diver. Joe logged 9 dives and Cara 6. We figured that was enough to get our fix, and supplemented our entertainment agenda with snorkeling, feeding multicolored frenzied fish bananas (and occasionally our own fingertips), and exploring the lush island by moped.

The coral and other sea life was plentiful and amazing, and Cara's Swedish Padi instructor, Ola, taught a method of "scuba nirvana " that really calmed her underwater. Those of you who know Cara might remember she is usually terrified of swimming in the ocean (some weird phobia she has). However, on Koh Tao, she fearlessly drifted through schools of barracuda, teased aggressive trigger fish, and even did a small cave swim-through. Cara missed night diving, but Joe and Alie can testify that it was amazing. When you shine a torch on the fish, they become clear targets for the barracuda which typically feed at night. It's kind of a death sentence for the fish, but the barracuda need to eat also! Alie went off on her own one evening to go snorkeling with feeding sharks, and has promised to to email us her impressions so we can post them!

We never wanted to leave Koh Tao, but were curious to see other parts of Thailand. We decided to take a night ferry to Surat Thani. Our hotel told us that the ferry was a comfortable overnight journey. We had in our minds that we might have private beds. When we arrived at the dock, we found that the vessel was the size of a large fishing boat, and the sleeping accommodation consisted of one crowded room with a foam pad that covered the floor. Some people who arrived early were able to stake out enough floorspace in order to stretch out and sleep, however, we weren't expecting the style of accommodation, arrived at the last minute, and found ourselves crammed into a small space barely big enough for our packs, let alone our bodies. Kind Joe slept outside on the deck to free up some leg space for his fiance. Who says chivalry is dead!

Krabi and surrounding area

We arrived in Krabi during our third week in Thailand. While most travelers pass through on their way to Phuket, Rai Lai, or other beach destinations, we decided to spend a night in the city, to see what it was like. Alie and Cara had a Thai massage in what turned out to be a brothel downtown, while Joe waited out a rainstorm on the balcony of our charming 4 dollar-a night guesthouse.

We went to the most amazing Wat, a monastery nestled in a valley between limestone cliffs. Individual temples were along the cliffs, set back in caves. It was well worth the exertion for the step back in time. It was not crowded at all, and the couple of dozen monks scurrying about outnumbered the tourists. However, the long tail monkeys outnumbered both the monks and the tourists. Little bald nuns shot the monkeys with slingshots to keep them away from the refreshment stands. There was another small hike, up about 1,500 stairs to the top of the limestone cliffs, to an area named "Buddha's Footprint". This hike will reward you with great views of the surrounding area, but we missed it, as it started raining and with the clouds we would not have been able to see anything, anyway.

We also took a long-tail boat to Rai Lay, a nearby beach peninsula inside a Thai National Park. The peninsula includes three main beach areas, each with privately run bungalows and restaurants. We stayed overnight on the least scenic, but also less expensive beach, East Rai Lay (turns to mud flats at low tide). We were still able to spend our time at the nearby and more upscale West Rai Lay beach, and the very expensive (western resort pricing), but most beautiful Hat Phra Nang. Besides sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, cruising the bay in long tail boats, the cliffs surrounding the beaches offer superb rock climbing opportunities. Joe and Alie tried their hand at climbing in a half-day class that just about knocked them flat, but was tons of fun. In addition, we all had fun with some moderate spelunking, since the limestone cliffs are riddled with caves. We missed the hike to a hidden lagoon, in between East Rai Lay and Hat Phra Nang, as we only stayed one evening.

Our bungalows on East Rai Lay (we stayed at The "Ya Ya"), were fun and funky in atmosphere and architecture. However, they were quite shabbily built and totally infested with critters.... Alie killed about seven huge cockroaches inside an hour, before she gave up and went to sleep, to the sounds of the Thai pop band playing late in the night at the bar next door. Joe and I had to abandon our porch due to the carpenter ants. However, the Ya ya does attract many backpackers and rock climbers due to its swiss-family-robinson look, lively bar scene, and excellent coffee (not to mention cheapest accommodation prices on the peninsula.)

Chiang Mai

I am very proud of our journey, as we managed to avoid travel agencies the whole way. After our first six hours (a local bus from Krabi back to Surrat Thani), we were stranded, it seemed like we'd have to book through a travel agency. All the agencies ("No, there is no public bus" "No, the public bus and train all booked". "No, there is no bus, and it is not comfortable" No, there is no train from Surrat Thani") We knew there was a bus station, with many buses, which were comfortable, and not booked. However, we still did not know how to get to the station! When we finally made it there, I felt as if I had accomplished some great feat. (If you are going to be spending 30 hours on a bus, you want a really good one. The tourist agencies are not well regulated, so while some I'm sure are very good, others often do not deliver what they have promised.

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, the capital of the Chiang Mai province, in the North of Thailand. This is the most popular tourist center for arranging trekking tours, taking Thai cooking classes, massage classes, and yoga. Chiang Mai is also known for its large and quite impressive transvestite population and, sadly, an active Opium trade. Shopping in Chiang Mai is fantastic - the guidebooks claim it is better than Bangkok, and we agree. The North is known for rich crafts, many tailors, and the popular night bazaar is a lively and colorful place to spend many evenings. The nightlife is also rich (but not too cheap). Our favorite bar, near the Thae Phae gate was "The Public House". For a small bar, it was always lively, and hosted an open jam session nightly, and good drink specials. Joe got his fix drumming with the band several evenings in a row.

Before Alie left us to return to the states and graduate school, the three of us went on a fantastic three-day, two-night trek in the Pai province (Northwest of Chaing Mai). We booked through Panda Tours, and highly recommend them. We went on a "non-touristed" trek (all the agencies boast this), but were surprised that they delivered beyond our expectations. We hiked through the devastated remains of jungle area (due to the slash-and burn technique employed by the hill tribe farmers and opium growers), rode elephants through lush misty jungle, crossed many rivers on precarious bamboo "bridges", and spent 3 hours poling downstream on a bamboo raft. Our tour guide, Sung, sparked our active imaginations entertaining us in the evenings with colorful tales of "treks gone bad".

Joe and I spent nearly two weeks in Chaing Mai, and considered staying there even longer to take Thai classes, or possibly teach English. ...

Chiang Khong (The Thai/Lao border in Northern Thailand)

Most people cruise quickly through this small, border town on their way overland from the North of Thailand to the North of Laos. We arrived near the end of Songkran - the annual water festival that marks the Thai new year. We had hoped to get a same-day or next-day Lao visa, but were not able to, due to the holiday (Lao immigration was closed). We wound up making friends with several locals, and had more fun in Chiang Khong than any other single place in Thailand.

We were lucky not only to catch Songkran, but also the annual Giant Catfish fishing festival (being filmed by Discovery Channel while we were there!) Because of our new Thai friends, we were able to ride in the fishing boat parade on the VIP cruise boat with the "mayor" of Chiang Khong, and other important locals.

At closer examination, this town offers a lot for the tourist looking for a more 'untouristed' Northern Thailand experience, since most travelers only stay one or two nights, if any, and the main tourist pushes are to get you a visa or to put you up for a night. Everything else, you are pleasantly on your own!

We'd like to give a strong "plug" a couple of businesses we found immeasurably helpful during our stay, and hope you patronize them if doing the overland Northern Thailand to Laos Route:

Travel Agencies:

Ms. Apple at Traveler's corner is the best travel agent in town, helpful and kind (and honest) and way better and more personal than the larger and somewhat unpleasant "Anne Tour" that our guidebook recommended. Her English is excellent, which really helps. If we had used Miss Apple's services, we would have saved money, and obtained our visa earlier, and with less hassle. Traveler's Corner is stocked with up-to-date information on Laos, and you are welcome to peruse for free. She's got fair prices, a good library exchange, guidebooks for sale, bicycles for rent, as well as many other Laos-bound traveler's supplies (ear plugs for the speed boat, mosquito nets, etc.) She can also help recommend a guesthouse or home stay if you are feeling frustrated with the choices of guest houses. (There are quite a lot, new ones springing up all the time, and they vary in quality and price).

Food/Drinks & Nightlife:

Okay, there isn't much nightlife in Chiang Khong, but you can certainly create your own. We found a small, unnamed and out-of-the way store/restaurant that you MUST NOT MISS if you pass through. This is not a tourist shop, and the prices reflect true local prices (less than half of what you will be charged in town). We may be biased (and we are, because we really liked the proprietors), but can safely say their traditional food surpassed any of the more "convenient" restaurants downtown (although they may have a limited menu). One important note, they charge foreigners "local" prices not only for food, but also for beer (also about half what the restaurant in town charge). In addition, the owners (Mr. Bob and Ms. A) have a selection of good American movies that you can watch on the TV/VCR in the shop. Our last night in town, we rounded up a few other travelers from our guest house, headed down to Mr. Bob's and had the best and cheapest evening, underneath the blinking Christmas lights and surrounded by friendly locals.

To reach the store, walk approximately 300 meters from the Bus station (away from the harbor and travel agencies) on the main street (the store will be on your left). You will recognize it by the black and white African-looking striped decoration, and it is directly across from a petrol station. For a lively evening, grab a few other tourists from your guest house and go! If you need help finding it, ask Ms. Apple at Traveler's corner, or a young Tuk-Tuk driver named Mr. Lee. (Not all the tuk-tuk drivers will know what you are talking about, as the shop does not currently have a name, and it is not a common destination for tourists). If you are lucky enough to find the shop, tell Mr. Bob and Ms. A that Joe and Cara send their love!

Mr. Bob is an excellent and talented artist / painter, the former creative director of an advertising agency in Bangkok (before the economy turned sour). He's got some fantastic plans drawn up for a future guesthouse he wants to build on his hillside property. Don't be put off by the fact that yes, he's probably looking for investors, because he and his family are generous, kind, honest and warm whether you are a perspective investor or not. For example, they invited us to their family's Songkran dinner, introduced us to all their friends, and let us hang out with them constantly even after we told them we were not investors. They treated us like family throughout our stay, even driving us back to our guest house themselves one evening when the tuk-tuks wanted extortionist prices. When they thought we were to be leaving Laos, they waited for us by the immigration office for two hours, in order to wish us good-bye.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Trip To India: To Mussoorie and the end of the trip

Chapter Twelve - To Mussoorie and the end of the trip

From Naini Tal we continued to Almora and Kausani. There were good views of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks from Kausani but also from the way to Almora. We followed the road past Kausani to the very interesting temples of Baijnath. According to what I heard, the first temples were built here by the Panduvas. A magnificent statue of Parvati can be seen here. Locals told me that it is made of an eight metal alloy which is more expensive than gold. Originally, there was also a Shiva statue, but it has been stolen and carted off to Goa where it still is (or should be). Photography is only allowed outside the temple. It's a nice place, not corrupted by vultures (of the human type).

Just inside the temple grounds, by the lake in which big fishes swim (no fishing is allowed), there lies a highly polished granite boulder of about 45 cm. in diameter. A crowd of about fifteen people had gathered around it, men and women. A temple Brahmin told us that this particular boulder was very old and its presence is woven into the Baijnath Temples history. Legend has it that the boulder can be lifted to breast height by 9 people. The balance will be correct then and you'll lift it easily. Sounds easy enough. Only, you have to lift it on your thumbs which have to be clenched between your index and middle finger. Like this nobody can grab the boulder. Eight people will have the balance of the rock disturbed so one or two people will get too much weight and you won't be able to get it up high. Ten people : the same. Only nine can do it. We decided to give it a try. And, indeed, with nine we successfully lifted the boulder breast-high. With eight somebody shouted that it was too heavy and we failed (I wondered if imagination had anything to do with it). Ten of us also failed, but here it was more a matter of lack of space I think. Anyway, we had succeeded and the Brahmin was very happy, because this "rarely happens". One of the Indian guys asked him if it was possible for a person to lift it on his own. The Brahmin told him he had never seen anybody doing that. All the men available tried it. None of them could lift the shiny polished rock. I watched the happening and thought back to the car salesman in the garage in Gorakhpur : "You Westerners are strong and Indians are not. But, Indians have a lot of resistance and you Westerners have not." I wondered if I would really be stronger, because these guys looked strongly built and able to lift it to me. I gave it a try and to my surprise I pulled it up to my breast. I was stronger and the salesman had been right ! Everybody was baffled and suddenly an applause broke loose. The Brahmin was also cheering. Everybody started trying to lift it again, but all kept failing. My friend Suki also tried. He also received applause after lifting it knee-high. Shit ! The garage salesperson was wrong ! There were strong Indians. Of course, there were.

We decided to drive through the Himalayas to Rishikesh. We didn't know at that time, but we were actually embarking on some kind of adventure. This time of year sees a lot of landslides. So, we had to drive over a lot of rubble, through thick mud on narrow mountain track (I saw even jeeps turn back) and on undermined tarmac. One time we had to wait for almost four hours for the road to be cleared. It's a great drive, but you should get information about road conditions before setting out. It could be so bad that you have to return, which is a real bummer if you've made it that far. On the way you see signs to the nearest tourist rest house if you should get too tired or just if it's getting dark. They are put up at regular intervals.
You can also get through the Himalayas this way by bus. There seemed to be enough buses to be able to make the trip in a short enough period (and they seem to plough through all the debris on the way).

From Tharali river Pindar runs alongside the road and offers great views, all the way to Karnaprayag which is the bigger town on the way. It's a great place to enter just around nightfall, when it is very beautiful with all the lights shining. There are some hotels and guest houses to stay the night if you want. From Karnaprayag you enter a bigger road again. It winds past Rudraprayag and Devaprayag to Rishikesh. I found Rishikesh a pleasant town. I spent the night in the Baseraa Hotel which had AC doubles for Rs 500 (tax incl.). Quite a change from the 150 rupees a couple of years ago, as listed in the LP. The room was very good though and it should be for that money. Hot water in the shower was no problem. I wanted to share the room with Suki, otherwise we would have to pay for two singles. Or better, I'd have to pay, because Suki can't afford it. Strangely enough, it was forbidden for us to share a room on my name. An Indian and a Westerner couldn't share a hotel room. Indian officialdom had an easy way 'round this though : we just had to put the room on my pal's name and I didn't get listed.

The hotel has a restaurant downstairs, the DaanaPaani. There was of course only vegetarian food. The menu listed several dishes, but not many of them were available. What was there, was rather bland too. Not bad. Not great either. Breakfast the next morning was good, but expensive. Among what I ordered were six pieces of toast with jam. The waiter didn't bring me enough jam to cover six toasts, so I left the last one and asked for the bill. The waiter came up to my table and asked : "And sir ? Good service ?" I told him : "Yes, it's okay. Thank you." He fetched me the bill. I paid the amount due and added a nice tip. He looked very pleased and asked : "Do you want jam for that toast too, sir ?" I told him I'd very much like that. He returned with a spoonful of jam and asked : "And sir ? Good service ? Good service !" I confirmed again, but he wanted more; he wanted another tip. He had been a friendly and attentive guy before, but again this made me think nothing of him anymore. I know he's probably a poor guy looking for some extras, but everybody should know the limits.

The only place not mentioned in the LP book is probably the Rishikund and Raghunath temple. It's a tank where Lord Rama is supposed to have taken a bath. It's a popular place among pilgrims.

Next destination: Mussoorie. The trip from Dehra Dun, up the winding hill road to Mussoorie will cost you if you come by car: Rs 15 to be precise. Once in the town, I wanted to go to the Valley View Hotel. Suki wanted to park to car somewhere near that place, so we were forced to drive up The Mall. Thing is, that you can only drive in The Mall on certain hours and it costs you dearly : the price they wanted from us was a totally ridiculous Rs 150 !! No, I'd rather choose a different place then. Of course, we could have walked, but my friend wanted the car close-by. So, we went to see a few places. I chose the Classic Heights Hotel. The receptionist who showed us around was a friendly Sikh. We saw three different rooms, all with different prices: (doubles) Rs 450, 550, 650 (inclusive of all taxes). It's hard to describe the difference of the rooms, they all had a totally different character. The cheapest was the most standard of the lot. The bathroom was the smallest of all three. The second one was a much bigger room with thresholds; to get to the bed you had to step up a couple of steps. The bed was big and so was the bathroom. The third room was very similar, only it looked a bit as if it had been a honeymoon suite in a long distant past. The bed was round and was completely surrounded by half-translucent curtains. I found the second room representing the best value for money, so I took that. And besides, the third room was a little bit too romantic for two guys (that is, if they are not gay !). Food could be had, but you had to take it in the room; it was only available from room-service. The food was good and the service friendly. The rooms were clean although a bit worn down. The views to Dun Valley were absolutely great and you could gaze at them either through the window or from a balcony.

The Mall was a great place for an evening stroll, although it was rather cold at that time. There's a good book shop and a record store (actually tapes and CD's). We also went to see the Camel Rock, on foot. A rickshaw from The Mall was between Rs 120 and 150.

By car, we went to Kempty Falls. They were quite high and worth the trip. On the way thither, we had to stop at a check point. I had to take my backpack out of the trunk and have it inspected. This was to see if I was carrying any liquor. I wasn't, so I can't say what happens if you do. I really didn't see the point. We got in the car again and continued... for about fifty meters. There we were stopped again. Car papers were inspected and we had to pay another fifteen rupees road tax ! The Mussoorie town council certainly knows how to collect taxes. Maybe they're just trying to keep out as many cars as they can, which is probably not a bad idea, but that's probably thinking too far for Indians... I suspect they're just after the money.

There are other falls in the Mussoorie vicinity, none of them as spectacular as the Kempty Falls though. They are : Mossy Falls (6 km. by road), Bhatta Falls (6.5 km. by bridle path, 12 by road) and Hardy Falls (NW of Vincent Hill and harder to reach). There are also some places with good views. One of them is Benong Hill, ten kilometres away by road from the Library Chowk. It once was the site of an observatory. It is gone now, but it is still a very good viewpoint towards the Himalayas above and the Yamuna river below. Another one is Lal Tibba (5 km.) at an altitude of 2440 meters. There is a coin-operated pair of binoculars here that provide an up-close view of the Nanda Devi-, Gangotri-, Sri Kanda-, Chaukhamba- and Kedarnath peaks. The Gangotri is the actual source of the river Ganges. Trekking there is possible. At just over 3000 meters, one can try to visit the famous Goddess Ganga Temple on the right bank of the river. Seven kilometres from the Library Chowk is Sir George Everest's House, the first Surveyor General of India after whom the highest mountain in the world is named. The place which is also known as Park Estate was his residential office. It once was a fine example of colonial architecture by the East India Company, but unfortunately it is now in ruins. There are, however, good views of the Himalayas and the Dun Valley.

We also went up Gun Hill by ropeway. As far as I can remember, it's still ten rupees. There are good views of the Himalayas, but only in the morning. We also came here in the evening and everything was hazy. At the top, there are some good cafe's where you can have some vegetarian snacks or just warm yourself with a cup of coffee or tea. One particular place is run by a friendly French guy who came to live in Mussoorie years and years ago. He's really cool !

Unfortunately I will also always remember this hill station as the place where I started suffering of dysentery. So, there won't be all good memories. I started suffering during one night in the hotel. I got very sick and didn't sleep for one minute. In the morning I decided I would need a doctor. Suki went to the reception to ask them to call one. The Sikh came up to our room and told me that the doctor here wouldn't be able to do very much for me. He said to take it easy the coming day, to take something like Rennie's (against acid stomachs) and to eat white rice and curd. No matter how sick I was, it flashed through my head that I had to get out of this place and return to Delhi where I could have decent treatment. It would be different if I had been alone and in a place where transportation is almost absent, but here I had good road connections with the capital and I had a friend who had a car. And besides, I would have had to return to Delhi the next day anyway, because I had only three days to go (including the flight day). I checked out and we immediately drove off. I remember that the trip was a real hell for me. Fortunately and strangely enough I could sleep most of the time. Like I just told you : I had planned to - under normal circumstances - to leave Mussoorie the next day. On the way, I would have paid a short visit to Haridwar, maybe even spent the night there. Suki woke me up when we passed it. Even in all my agony, I decided to take a look and some pictures. It was a great place and it's really too bad that I couldn't visit it properly. It looked a bit like a miniature Varanasi, but that's seen through tormented eyes. After an hour or so, we continued and I can't tell you how glad I was to arrive in the Connaught Palace in Delhi. The rest you know, I already told you before.

End note

That was something about my holidays in India. It's not always easy to write about a trip. The best things that have happened to me I just can't write down, because it's so damn hard to express feelings in words, and feelings are all what India is about. It's been a total experience and although I can't say that this was my best trip regarding the friendliness of the people, the impressiveness of the sights or the quality of the food, I can certainly say that this has been the most special one and don't ask me to explain that. Hopefully you somehow enjoyed reading this.

If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please feel free to write me !

First Trip To India: Into the Himalayas

Chapter Eleven - Into the Himalayas

Our next destination was Naini Tal. We went there by Hardoi and Bareilly, which is not a very spectacular trip, apart from some traditional cotton processing that can be seen on the way.

The trip from the plains into the Himalayas was a nice sight and the climb up to Naini Tal offered some spectacular views. Naini Tal itself, with the lake, was very beautiful and a great place to spend your time. There are enough places of interest in the vicinity to keep you occupied. Nanda devi peak
Apart from the lake, these include the Naini Devi Temple, St. John's Church, the municipal board building, Hanumangarh and the UP State Observatory, Snow View with views of 7817 meters high Nanda Devi peak (the ropeway costs Rs 35 for one hour; strangely enough, you can't take photographs from out the ropeway 'shuttle'), Nayana Peak at 2611 meters with good views of the snow-capped mountain range, Tiffin Top with views of forest, valley and Himalayas, Kilbury with a panoramic view of the snow ranges and valleys, Land's End with panoramic views of the plains, Kaenchi Temple (20 km.) and the nearby renowned ashram of Baba Neem Karauli, Khurpatal (10 km.) which is another beautiful lake as are Sattal (21 km.), Bheemtal (22 km.) and Naukuchiatal (27 km.) and the temple at Ghorakhal.

There's good food in a restaurant located at the end of The Mall, just near the entrance to the lower station of the ropeway to Snow View. I can't remember its name, but it translates from Hindi as the 'Pearl Palace', so the ... Mahal. If you need medical emergency treatment, you can go to the following hospitals : the B.D. Pandey in Mallital, the G.B. Pant in Tallital or the Sitapur Eye Hospital. I cannot say anything about these places. Fortunately I didn't need them, but they are there if you find yourself in an emergency situation. With about 150 hotels to choose from, it's more a matter of just picking one than carefully selecting one. I chose the Hotel Prashant. Doubles were Rs 100 to 125 (all inclusive) with the more expensive ones a lot better than their price difference would indicate. The room is clean enough and there's an attached bathroom with shower, although there's hot water only in the morning for a very brief period. You can forget about taking a cold shower here; it would probably kill you. The beds are very comfortable with cosy, thick bed covers. If you come to Naini Tal in winter, be sure that you'll be sufficiently warm at night before taking a hotel room. In Hotel Prashant, there's a restaurant too, but there's not much available and what is, is vegetarian. The menu lists many meat dishes too, but none of them were available.

Naini Tal is famous for its hand-made candles. They are extremely beautiful and 'success guaranteed' souvenirs. There's a very wide choice and everything's amazingly cheap. For a sculptured goddess (about 30 cm. high) I paid Rs 28. A beautiful thick candle with a bunch of glazed and perfumed grapes dangling from it, was Rs 90. It was among the most expensive ones. Don't leave Naini Tal without buying some. There are enough shops selling them in Mallital. Last week (in the Christmas period) I was walking through a shopping centre here in Belgium and I saw some hand-made candles of similar height but of far inferior quality. The cheapest one was - I'll calculate the price in rupees - Rs 580 and one similar to the grapes (it was with leaves here) was about Rs 1860. Just to give an indication what stuff like that can cost you here. Other things to buy include rugs and carpets and shawls and tweeds.

First Trip To India: My mysterious guide

Chapter Ten - My mysterious guide

On to Shravasti. The trip thither goes past some of the best scenery that Uttar Pradesh has to offer. Agreed, concerning natural scenery UP has nothing to offer , so a couple of hundred teak trees bunched together makes a great sight. The road goes through several small villages and settlements.

There's not much choice if you want to stay in Shravasti. First, you can decide to stay in nearby Balrampur in the UPT Bungalow. This has always been the accepted place to stay. In Shravasti itself, you can either try your luck at one of the monasteries, or you can go to the two-room Tourist Bungalow that has now opened its doors. Previously it was a privately owned building by some official of UP Tourism, but now it's been converted to accommodate tourists. There are only very few foreign tourists, so two rooms strangely enough is sufficient most of the time. The rooms are very good value at Rs 200 for a double. I read about this place in an advertisement of UP Tourism when I was staying in Kushinagar. We arrived there at night and had some trouble locating the place. There are also checkpoints before entering Shravasti, but these didn't pose the problem. The thing was that there was a power failure at that moment, so all buildings were covered in darkness. The Tourist Bungalow too. After passing the entrance a couple of times, we suddenly saw a sign saying 'Fast Food' and something else. We stopped to look. The 'something else' was 'Tourist Bungalow'. When we drove up the drive, somebody suddenly came out of the dark and asked if we wanted to stay the night there. We said 'yes'. This 'guard' also turned out to be the receptionist. He apologised for having to welcome us in the dark. We asked how long the power cut was going to last. He told us it would be switched on again at around nine (it was six at the moment), but "sometimes the power is out for 10 days". That gave us good hope. We were shown to our room. He carried candles, we had a flashlight. Although it was dark, we could see that the room was spotlessly clean and very spacious. It was nicely carpeted. There was a separate (large) bathroom and a separate sitting corner. When we were shown the bathroom, I saw some creature sitting in the middle of the room. When I shone the torch's light on it, I saw that it was a scorpion. "Very rare here", the receptionist / guard assured us. "We always sleep on the floor near the entrance and we've seen one only once before." We ? Yes, there was another guy... The cook. Ah, yes, that's right ! There was a sign advertising fast food. Well, let's try it then. The choice was very limited. So limited, in fact, that there was nothing really more than finger chips (chips or French fries were called finger chips everywhere I went in India) and stuffed paratha's. To drink there was a choice of tea, Thums Up or mineral water. We ordered all but the tea. It was around quarter past six. We had the 'meal' at 8.30. I remember finishing shortly after the lights went on. This was indeed around nine. The next morning we ordered breakfast, consisting of... yes, right... finger chips and stuffed paratha. I wanted to visit the ruins early enough to be able to comfortably drive to Lucknow. There's not a whole lot to see in Shravasti, so I decided not to waste any time there and opted to stay only one night. I ordered breakfast at six o'clock. I got it at around nine. This was really 'Fast Food' with capital F. The people were friendly enough, they just didn't have any sense for organisation. I just waited and watched the monkeys play. There are a lot of them in the morning. In the early morning the whole place is taken in by the langurs. After a while the macaques took over. Meanwhile, I also met an old fellow who was staying in the other room. He was alone and started talking to me in really good English. He wanted to know about me and what I was planning on doing here. Maybe I had started to become a little paranoid at that time, but I immediately suspected this person to be just another guide wanting me to show around the Shravasti ruins. He told me that he was asked as some sort of VIP at the inauguration of a new temple. He lived in Lucknow. It became clear that he was not looking to guide us around, but nevertheless I couldn't help thinking that anyone talking to me would do that without a reason. I was right. He wanted to know if we were occasionally going towards Lucknow. When I told him we were, he asked if he could come along. I didn't mind. We'd pick him up after we had visited the place. He was a nice guy to talk to and when I asked him if he was Hindu he answered me something that made me feel particularly sympathetic towards this guy. He said : "By birth I am a Hindu, but by faith I am a humanist and by thinking I am a rationalist." This was not the kind of answer your normal geek of the street would give, I thought. He coùld be some kind of VIP. When I told him that I was from Belgium, he became very enthusiastic and told me "from Belgium ? Very nice ! I have once met your king ! A great personality !" I thought, "yeah, right. That dude meeting our king ? Probably he wants to secure his ride." I also told him that our king (or the one he was supposed to have met) had deceased and that his son was now on the throne. He said he felt sorry. I asked him how come that he had met the king. He said that at that time he was the deputy director of UP Tourism. Yeah, sure.

After breakfast we visited the ruins. I found them a bit disappointing, although there are some great photographic opportunities with orange robe-clad monks wandering through the complex. There are also plenty of beautiful butterflies, drinking the nectar of the equally beautiful flowers.

Now about the ruins. Although not much recognisable remains, but the most interesting ones were : the Bodhi tree which marks the spot where Anathapindika planted a bodhi sapling, temple 1 & monastery, which are among the latest buildings to be erected at Jetavana, temple 2, originally called Gandhakuti, the Buddha well & temple 3 which marks the spot where the original Koshambakuti stood, built by Anathapindika and personally used by the Buddha, the place for the hawan or holy fire and a nearby tank used by the pupils of the Buddha. Then about a mile away from this complex are another two structures called the Kachchi Kuti and the Pakki Kuti. The former was built in different periods, the earliest being the Kushana period, the latest building phase was in the 12th century. It's a typical Gupta shrine. The latter is probably an ancient stupa, but it's also possible that the remains are the so-called Hall of the Law, built by king Prasenjit for the Buddha. On the way to these two buildings, one comes across an old Jaina temple. The visible dome is a medieval construction over an earlier Jain temple. It is the birthplace of the third Tirthankara, Sambhavanatha.

Other places to visit are the different monasteries in the same style as you see them at Sarnath and Kushinagar. The only difference is that here they are less used to 'normal' tourists, more to real pilgrims who also often spend the night there. There are Thai, Japanese, Burmese, Chinese and Sri Lankan monasteries.

After the visit we returned to the tourist bungalow to pick up our new made friend. We had a nice (but bumpy) trip all the way to Lucknow. On the way, we also visited a really big (!) cattle market at Kaisarganj. Ramnagar, just over the bridge crossing the Ghaghara river, is a good place for a stop and a drink at one of the food 'n' drinks stalls. They're probably OK, because they are heavily frequented by truck drivers.

Just outside Lucknow our 'guide' directed us to the place where the British were defeated by the Indian revolutionaries in 1857 during the First War of Independence. It's located at Chinhat, near Kathauta Tal. A small memorial stone commemorates this occasion. Foreigners are rarely seen here, although some locals told us that sometimes British nostalgics come here. There used to be a rest house, but it has been closed down now because the lake has dried up. In Lucknow we were shown a couple of places that are not in the guidebook but which are nevertheless interesting to see. First there was a nice Hanuman temple, called the Hanuman Setu Temple. It is located at Vishwa Vidyalaya Road (or University Rd) not so far from the river Gomti. It has an interesting Hanuman statue : Hanuman opens his chest and shows that he carries Rama and Sita in his heart. It's really unusual. The are also beautiful bas-reliefs, for example Hanuman and his companions building the bridge to Lanka. Photography was not permitted but I got permission after all because this man was accompanying us. What was it with that guy ? Was he really an important guy ?

Next, we visited the cremation place of Acharya Narendra Dev (1889-1956), just across the bridge over the river. He was the chairman of the Socialist Party in India and founder of the socialist movement in India. The place is only really interesting for the initiated ones or for Indians, but the views over the Gomti River are good. On the other shore, there are (unfortunate, but somehow picturesque) some slums.

To the west, still near the river and almost opposite to the Residency stands the Martyr's Memorial pillar (Saheed Samarak). I think it's quite clear why it was constructed (to commemorate the martyrs of India's struggle for freedom). It was opened on the 15th of August 1957 and is totally made of marble. From this place there's a great view towards the very beautiful arts college of Lucknow University. It's really worth its name 'arts college'. At sunset it is beautifully reflected in the river's waters and makes a great shot !

In a park near the crossing of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Aminabad Road stands a simple but beautiful statue of Lakshman, brother of Lord Rama. Belief has it that this area was given to him, so it is thought that the name Lucknow derives from Lakshman. That's why this statue is rather important. It's the personification of the city. Close to the GPO on Vidhan Sabha Marg stands the Vidhan Sabha Bhavan, the state governor's house. It's a beautiful building with a dome. Not far from the planetarium there's Lucknow Globe, which is just that : a globe, held up by a dolphin.

Now it was time for our friend and guide to go home. He invited us to come along, which we thankfully accepted. We met his family and in particular his son, who was also a well-educated person. We got tea and sweets and talked and talked. While sitting there in the living room, I noticed a large bookcase completely full of books. One of them had the title 'Developing rural communities in mountainous areas', a title that made me think that this guy had been telling me the truth all along. Still, he didn't look that important, nor did his house. In fact, it was just a ground level apartment in a large block. As if he was reading my thoughts, he told me : "Remember me telling you that I have met your king ?" I said I did. "Well", he said, "I have some photos about that, that I want to show to you." He handed me a photo album and there he was together with our former king. He had many shots of the occasion. He was also pictured together with other important people, like the king of Nepal and the president of Burma, the Maharaja of Benares and Indira Gandhi. And many more. He had indeed been a very important person. I felt a bit sorry that I hadn't believed him, but I had been told so many fairy tales along the way. He insisted on giving me one of the pictures of him with our king. I told him that I was honoured, but that he shouldn't give these memorabilia away. He kept insisting so I accepted. I told him I couldn't give him something even close to that but I would make a photo of all of us together so that we all could remember our meeting and so that he could add one more shot to his already great collection. He smilingly accepted. I have sent the two photo's that I made to him about two weeks ago and of course didn't get a reply so far. But I think I will. And even if not, I will still have great memories of this really interesting person who made a total difference from the masses and who made a day's travelling even greater than usual.

In a couple of days I think I was able to visit most of the sights, of course also including the best known ones. We saw the clock tower, the Jami Masjid and the Rumi Darwaza. The Bara Imambara was great. Entry to the whole complex was Rs 10. The ticket is a combined pass by which one can also visit the Picture Gallery, Clock Tower Garden, the Shahi Hammam in the Hussainabad Imambara's grounds and Rumi Darwaza. Guides wanted Rs 135 for a complete tour of the Bara Imambara. When I asked one of them how much it cost to guide me around the labyrinth (I could look around the central hall myself. I had bought a good booklet on the subject), he said one hundred and thirty-five rupees. The same for one third of the complex ! He, nor his colleagues, wanted to come down, so we decided to find our own way. In fact, I was glad I did, because it's great fun on your own, not knowing where you'll end up. There's nothing to see inside the labyrinth so wandering through the maze is the point of going there. There is something else, for the record, but I'll mention it later. The view from the roof is great in all directions and you can pinpoint a lot of the city's important buildings. When we got down again, the guides were awaiting us and said "You see, it is not interesting on your own. You don't know what to look for. There's no interest then." I told him that we had great fun anyway. We made our way to the entrance of the Bouli well. The guide followed us, repeating the same line again and again. He said : "Going inside there will not be interesting if you don't know what to look for. I can show you what to look for." I asked how much he wanted. He said "One hundred and thirty-five rupees." I told him that it was crazy asking the same price for one third of the complex as for the whole lot. He didn't want to come down. He said : "Tourists always pay 135 rupees." I said : "Well, if that's so, they're just plain crazy. I'm not going to pay that amount for this well, if another person can visit the whole shit for the same price. In fact, I wouldn't pay that sum for a complete tour. I can live a day of that money. How much would an Indian pay ? It's not because I am a foreigner that you have to rip me off." The man got seriously annoyed because of my refusal. He started acting so intense, that it started to attract a crowd. I remained calm and said : "Let's suggest that you want to visit this place and someone tells you that it is only interesting if you have a guide, because you won't get the essence of the whole thing otherwise. Well, let's also suggest that if that person asks you one thousand rupees. Well, you'll know that you will not see anything if you don't pay. Will you ?" In the long run, he had to agree with me that he could never pay that amount and even if he could he wouldn't. I said : "Well, it's the same with me. I can pay that amount, but it is my principle that I don't, because I know it's way too much, especially for only one third of the lot. So, no matter what you say, I will not give in." The crowds were closely following the debate, which lasted quite some time, and some people who understood English were translating for the others. Judging from some reactions, the people seemed to agree with me. At the end, the guide was convinced of his being wrong and said : "okay, I'll take you inside. You can give anything you want." Knowing that asking a specific amount never works if they say that, I told him that I would indeed give what I wanted and that it would be much less than Rs 135. He didn't mind and took me by the arm to go inside. The people in the crowds were wondering what this strange foreigner was going to do next and everybody followed us inside. The guide was right, I would probably never have seen what's so special about the place. If you're standing in one of the low-lying storeys around the well, people can not see you from the other side, although they are actually looking at you, because you are covered in darkness. They also can't see you from the entrance of the Baoli, because the storeys are hidden behind the stairs and too low to make you visible. But, you can see anyone who's standing there at the entrance ! It's an ingenious construction, however, I don't know if it was intended to be like that. The reflections of the water in the well are responsible for this. It's something like a periscope with the water acting as the mirror. It maybe sounds simple, but it's not that obvious if you're actually standing there. That's what's so special about this place. The guide told me that there's something similar with the labyrinth and the main gate. If you've seen either of these two (the labyrinth or the well), you know what to look for and you can find it yourself in the other building. We did. I gave the man a more than fair amount for his services. He was pleased and told me something like that he was respecting me for what I had told him during the discussion. I don't know why, but that's what he said. I said good-bye to him and the twenty or so other people from the crowd and left.

We were on our way to see the Hussainabad Imambara. Directly on your left after passing through the main gate is the Shahi Hammam, the 'royal' baths. You should see it as it is included in the Bara Imambara entry ticket, but it's not that interesting. Besides, the guard will appoint himself as a guide which is totally unnecessary. A visit is only a matter of minutes, so the tip is only a matter of a few rupees. He just follows you inside and says something in Hindi which you can't understand (if you don't speak the language of course). I thought he was asking me something about myself because his face was almost expressionless. Afterwards, it became clear that he had 'explained' me about the place (you know, the reached out hand in 'baksheesh style').

The Hussainabad Imambara is beautiful enough, especially with the tombs lining the grounds on both sides. Also the interior is quite a difference from the Bara Imambara. There are a lot of valuables inside and it looks as if they are jostling for space. From the ceiling many chandeliers and lamps are hanging down, many (or all ?) of them gifts. The silver throne is impressive. There's also a model of the Kirbala, the place where the family of Mohammed sacrificed themselves and a footprint of the prophet. When I was removing my shoes before entering the place, a man came standing next to me and asked me if I wanted a guide. I told him that I was fine on my own. He told me that it wouldn't be interesting on my own (sounded familiar) and that he didn't want much money for it. I asked him how much, but I already knew the answer. It indeed was 'as much as you like'. Well, "why not", I thought and agreed. He showed us around and explained about various items. I must say his explaining was clear and rather interesting, but very brief. I think it lasted about five minutes. Afterwards I looked around on my own a much longer time. When I was finished, he blocked the entrance and asked for his tip. I gave him something like twenty rupees. It was the smallest bill I had. I did have some coins, but I decided to keep them for other purposes. He was complaining that it wasn't enough and laughed as if I had given him 50 paise. Suki, my Indian friend who was still accompanying me, told him that it was more than enough, but still he wouldn't give up and started complaining loudly. Some Muslim men who were sitting near the entrance had their attention drawn to us. I got rather annoyed myself because it's always and everywhere the same : always that same bullshit about money. But still, I remained calm. He didn't. When I was indicating that I was going to leave, he called the guys at the entrance for backup, to support his cause. They came up and started bullshitting in Hindi. I got really fed up with these guys, but didn't pay. My pal must have felt that the situation was getting out of hand somehow and paid the guy another ten rupees. I told him he shouldn't have done that. The man greedily snatched the money bill out of his hand. Probably thinking that his technique had worked fine, he kept complaining that it was still not enough. I asked him if he was okay in the head, then said : "Do you want the rest of my money too, man ? Here take it." I handed him all the coins I had. "There," I said, "stick them up your ar*e." I must have looked angry enough because he stopped whining and stepped aside to let me out. Demonstrative, I refused going out through the main entrance and left by the side door. What a place ! I remember at the time advising myself not to hire any more guides in Lucknow. And, as a matter of fact, I can still only give that advice to my fellow travellers. Just outside the grounds, we also saw the Satkhanda which is particularly beautiful in the evening when it's warmly illuminated by the sun.

Residency The Residency was a site where history was still alive and where you could really feel it. It's just great ! I took a long time to visit it (more than half a day), to absorb the atmosphere and to talk to people I met there, especially some university students. One particular guy I met came walking up to me, smiling. I smiled back and we said hello. He reached out both of his hands as to hand me something. The paranoid person that I had become, I was a bit reluctant to accept because I saw the rupee bills flying away again, but nevertheless I did. He gave me a handful of red flowers. I was a bit astonished and asked him "Why?" "Because you are my friend", he said and wandered off. Still rather perplex, I let him go, not even knowing his name. I suddenly realised what made travelling in India so special and so much fun. Just when you think you've had it with all the people hassling you and you're about to give up completely, you meet somebody who makes all these 'problems' so tiny and who gives you - let's call it - new courage to continue. These people are also part of the great differences to be seen in India. There seems to be only light and dark in India and not much in between. The experience of these stark contrasts is what you come here for and is what will make you return.

Entrance to the Residency was free, to the model room was Rs 1. The model room was really interesting because of the good drawings which really bring the hectic period of 1857 to life. The model itself was not so helpful and was covered with a thick layer of dust. Photography in the model room is not allowed. Downstairs in the basement it is. When I was looking for Sir Henry Lawrence's grave in the cemetery I was looking for something rather big. Instead, it turned out to be a very simple white stone slab.

I also went to the zoo, although I rarely do that when I'm abroad. I think the Antwerp zoo (Belgium), which is about 20 kilometres from my door, has a great collection of animals that are extremely well taken care for. But, I am very interested in reptiles, so when I read that the zoo in Lucknow has a large snake collection, I decided to go anyway. Unfortunately, it turned out be a rather poor collection regarding the number of reptiles. Also, half of it is badly visible because you have to look through dirty windows into dirty terrariums. Still, for an Asian zoo it's not so bad and most of the animals looked to be in better condition than some people I saw during my trip. There's a small admission charge.

The last place I visited in Lucknow was the Martinière School.
After reading through the list of places to stay, I decided to stay at Capoor's. When I arrived there, a guard informed me with tears in his eyes that Mr. Capoor had died and that the hotel was closed. A note on the door said the same. Too bad. Somebody recommended me the Hotel Gomti, but it was indeed very shabby. Prices for doubles were Rs 650 with and Rs 350 without air-con (excl. taxes !). I was immediately told that non-AC rooms were not available for me. The people at the reception were very unfriendly, close to being rude and the rest of the staff wasn't much better. A place to spend only one night, or better, no nights.

Hotel Elora is very conveniently located. Doubles, non-AC, cost Rs 350 (all incl.). The rooms are not that great value, but at least the place is clean enough. There's satellite TV. There's an attached bathroom with shower. You have to notify the reception for hot water.

At lunchtime, I went to the hotel's restaurant next door, the Seema. This restaurant is listed in the LP twice as being a good place to eat. I can't see why. The service was fast but bad and the people were close to being rude, not by speech but by their ignorance towards the customers. The food's taste was above average, but not really great at all. They even served chilly chicken without the bones removed. The result is that the whole dish was full of dangerous little bone splinters. It was not edible.

The same evening, around nine, I wanted to take a shower. So, I notified the reception to arrange the hot water for me. They told me they were seeing to it and that hot water would be running in my bathroom in 15 minutes. Around 9.20, I opened the tap. There was no hot water. There were two pipes with taps in the bathroom : the left pipe was about one meter high with a tap on top. The right pipe was about two meters high with a shower overhead and a tap on the same level as the one on the left pipe.

I waited another 10 minutes and tried again. No hot (not even slightly) water. Not having it at 9.45, Suki (my pal) called reception again. They had forgotten about it but were immediately going to fix it for us. Please, wait fifteen minutes for the water to get to the room. Okay ! 10.05. No hot water. Let's give it another ten minutes. 10.15. Still nothing. At 10.30 I started getting really tired of it and went downstairs to the reception. As soon as the man saw me, he started shouting at a room boy. He got really angry at that guy. "Sorry, sir. Hot water is coming now !", he said. The boy signed me to follow him. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." He repeated it over and over when we went upstairs. Instead of going to my room, he went to a room two doors away. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." He pounded on the room door. Repeatedly. After a few minutes a half-sleeping and half-naked Indian man opened the door and was wondering where the fire was. The room boy gazed at me a couple of seconds, said "sorry, sir" again and shot in the man's room. You could really read the surprise in that dude's eyes. What the hell is going on, he thought. And what is this foreigner waiting here for ? I felt a little ridiculous. Water could be heard running inside the room. Apparently, the boy was checking if there was only no hot water in my room. Suddenly, he came running out of the room again and went inside mine. The man was left standing there without any explanation. He shook his head in a way as if he was trying to wake up from a dream, and disappeared inside. The boy was already fiddling with the taps in my bathroom by the time I came in. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." He opened the left tap (the one without shower head) and said : "Look, sir, hot water." I felt it and, indeed, it was warm. I asked him if there was also hot water in the right pipe. He told me there wasn't. I thanked him for his efforts. He smiled widely and left. "Sorry, sir. Sorry, sir." Of course, I didn't get any hot water ! I had been trying the wrong tap ! But, you would normally expect the warm stuff to come out of the shower, wouldn't you ? The time was around eleven now. I could forget about a shower, so I would have to wash up by hand now. I left the tap running while I applied the soap. By the time I had to rinse it off, the water had become so hot that you could easily burn off your skin together with the soap. I could do nothing but open the right (cold water) tap that was on the shower (right) pipe. Oh, I was in luck again. The tap didn't budge. There was no other option than to use the cold shower. I got out of the bathroom at around 11.30. I had been waiting for more than two hours to finally end up like this !
The next morning, I ordered breakfast with room-service. Time was around half past six. Some waiter from the Seema Restaurant came to my room and took orders. I got it 'round eight and half of the order was wrong. He was very annoyed when I brought this to his attention. He would fix it. Another 45 minutes later he came back in.
With all this going wrong, I decided to find another hotel the next night. I went to the Avadh Lodge. This is a really good place, and very nice too. It's like staying as a guest of a family in colonial India. The rooms are great and all different. Everything is clean and the staff is helpful and friendly. We wanted a non-AC double and had the choice of two rooms. One was Rs 220, the other one Rs 250. Really recommended, this place !

A very good and cheap enough place to eat in Lucknow is Meal Weal. It is centrally located (although not really in the crowded area) at the Commerce House, Habibulla Estate. Just take the street almost opposite Capoor's and continue for a couple of hundred meters. It's on the right then. It's a fast food joint, similar to Nirula's in Delhi. I went there several times and it was always good, fast and friendly. Sample prices : fried rice Rs 28.50, chilly chicken complete dish Rs 47.50, Indian vegetarian maxi meal Rs 34, soft drinks Rs 8. In Lucknow I also went to see an Indian movie in the Mayfair cinema, which is located at Hazratganj, along Mahatma Gandhi Road, again not far from Capoor's, on the same side. It's a modern place and rather comfortable. The film was an Indian production called 'Rangeela'. It was thé film of the moment and probably of the year. The film's tunes were played everywhere you went, also in Suki's car.

The movie was in Hindi, but the plot was so simple that I didn't even need subtitles. The film's photography and dancing scenes were good for an Indian film, but as with 95% of them, the story was as thin as a piece of paper. Although it lasted for almost three hours, it was good fun. Entrance for the Saturday evening showing was Rs 25.