LOVE, malaysia, road trip, traveling

An enchanted forest and the fireflies of Malaysia

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of these little lightning bugs is the famous song by Owl City titled Fireflies.

You would not believe your eyes

If ten million fireflies

Lit up the world as I fell asleep

In a little coastal hamlet an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, magic unfolds each night. We reached Kuala Selangor with the sun setting behind us, a spark on orange lighting up the sky. We had been told about the firefly forest by a young couple we had met in Taman Negara, which is another hidden gem that Malaysia has to offer. And it does not get truer than that. A firefly cruise is one of the most happy-to-your-bones kind of experience in Malaysia.

The place will be underwhelming initially but we are glad we gave in to our gut feeling and good advice, and went in, travellers waiting to uncover some glorious treasure. We were ushered into a park that proudly announced itself to be the Bukit Belimbing Firefly Park Resort. Having been hurried into a boat, a young man quickly scuttled behind us and introduced himself as our boatman for the evening.

It’s a different world as soon as you step onto the boardwalks. Under the dense foliage, it’s nice and cool. We pushed off from the banks of the Selangor river into a marshy mangrove-ish route that reminded me of the backwaters in Kerala. The narrow channel slowly opened up to a wide mouth of the river with crowded embankments made of entwined roots that made up the forest. These mangrove mainstays have attractive cerise flowers whose nectar lures the fireflies. I was straining my eyes, the sun having set completely, and the darkness of 8pm hindering my perception. I struggled to search for the blobs of light as we turned into a wider channel. And find them I did.

fireflie 6211(1)

Out of nowhere, I see mesmerising patterns of twinkling lights that suddenly fill the space around us. The glow of the fireflies reflecting on the surfaces of the clear stream of Selangor beckoned us to a world akin to a fairy-tale.

Fondly called “kelip-kelip”, in Malay folklore, fireflies are believed to be the nails of passing ghosts, or so our boatman told us. This is supposed to deter the children from going out after dusk. I doubt it works though. I had been oblivious to bioluminescence except for an occasional little encounter with a firefly as a child, and here I was, surrounded by thousands, in each direction. And just like that, it was Christmas all over again – whole bushes of berembang lit up with little dazzling fireworks.

Our boatman skilfully manoeuvred his boat, weaving in and out among the tree branches that hung over the water, and often took our boats right in the middle of a dense grove, up until I had a dozen fireflies in my head, peeping from underneath my hair. The fireflies drifted lazily over tree branches and leaves, glowing a warm yellow against the night sky. I wish I had pictures to prove how surreal the experience was but cameras aren’t allowed there, damn it. Coming from a concrete jungle with skyscrapers that pierce the sky, being amid these glittering berambang bushes was heaven in a nutshell. We drove back to the shore, the entire experience as fleeting as the life of a firefly in your palm, but as beautiful as anything can ever be.

 

 

Picture credit: Kuala Sepetang

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airlines, food, traveling, Uncategorized

Passing the baton? Air India’s public image takes a nose-dive with its ban on non-veg in the economy class

Airlines have come up with innovative ways to cut costs. Delta Airlines purchased its own fuel processing refinery to cut corners in the long run.  In 1994, Southwest Airlines removed the company’s logo from rubbish bags, saving the carrier $300,000 a year in printing costs. How else would any carrier in such a competitive industry survive? Such parsimony has often paid off – lighter chairs, lesser in-flight magazines, female attendants because they are lighter (ingenious, GoAir) – companies have approached this issue with crazier ideas that we’d expect.

But Air India seems to have rubbed its passengers the wrong way in its efforts to stay afloat.

Ironically the decision comes at a time when the Supreme court has stayed the ban on Centre’s controversial cattle ban. You might think that a sinking ship will try to find safe harbour somewhere. At least that’s the predictable rationale. Not true for a government-owned neck deep in debt-quagmire airline called Air India. Amidst the uproar around beef ban and liquor ban, Air India has tightened the noose around its neck by what could be termed as poor decision-making skills. Or maybe their PR person is busy flying Vistara.

The decision to ban non-veg menu for the economy class seems straight out a government memo which has called for a look from a political/nationalistic narrative practised by majority. And people were quick to point out that this was a stupid way to deal with debt evidenced by the fact that chicken is cheaper than paneer. But really? Anyone flying Air India would ideally have the budget to afford BOTH chicken and paneer. But it all boils down to a liberal question of choice, which we have very high regards for, followed by little understanding. The decision has elicited strong criticisms from all corners. Air India had moved to an all-veg meal model on sub-90 minute flights last year. What’s worse, they also nicked tea and coffee from their lunch and dinner menu.

Air India has justified their decision claiming that most of the people did not specify their preferences at the time of booking; that the passenger ratio of vegetarians to non- vegetarians has tilted greatly in the favour of the former. These justifications, on the face of it, seem palatable. But denying the choice to individuals altogether seems to veer close to the situation on land in India. To top it off, the move is discriminatory to say the least considering how the airline will still be offering the exclusive non-veg menu to those flying business class.

Air India could have come up with a better way to stop seeing red- making food specifications mandatory, paving way for allocation of responsibility in event of negligence in terms of catering. But the only solution it advocates is an extreme method, and without providing a thorough exposition on how this method came to be chosen. Transparency is the key to any public decision. As for many who have chosen to get riled up against the decision- have you ever run a debt-laden national carrier? Air India may prove to be correct. Their total debt is estimated to be around 52000 crores. With this cost-cutting endeavour they are poised to save around 8 crores each year. That gives them the recovery window of about, say, around 6500 years (I haven’t considered the disinvestment that the government announced last month, so that may shake the numbers). The math doesn’t add up. But hey, that’s the case with most of the decisions of this government.

We won’t be around to see them recover; and at this rate, the government wont, either.

article, dharamsala, friends, india tourism, life, LOVE, memories, road trip, traveling, Uncategorized

The Road Trip

We pulled into Dharamsala around as the sun was first rising, with two fingers of light on the horizon. We crossed the breezy but narrow roads into the city limits, making our way to a bus depot.  Rubbing my sleep-filled eyes, I tried to peer through the hazy glass, at the snow-covered mountains on my right, the sky turning the color of light orange with wispy blue clouds at the edges, like froth at the top of a drink. Most of my classmates were asleep, the target of my envy —for the rumbling-swaying bus devoid me of the much-needed rest—considering we had a long day ahead of us.  I had stayed up, flitting in and out of sleep, leaning in, my weight on the shoulders of a friend, who had blissfully slept, much to my chagrin. We walked up to our hotel, with the taste of our exhaustion livid in our mouths, slept on the bed in the same outfit, only to wake up an hour later, drink a cup of coffee in the beautiful terrace area and later, drive to our first destination.

We had the trip of our lives, with the fear of imminent placements put mutually on the backburner. I have no adjectives to describe my classmates— they are the most eclectic bunch of people I have met! Our class would throw their hands up in the air and relax, with music in the background and a cigarette in their hand, than battle out political differences. This educational trip, or so it was meant to be, was a proof of our symbiotic association. We travelled all day, amidst the cliffs which were marked by tall trees along the roadsides, their arms up like they were being frisked. We ambled along a clammy-smelling, muddy trail to the Tibetan parliament in exile, and trudged lazily from a library to a human rights discussion. We braved the sleety rain ricocheting off the rocks. We were bemused by the plight of the young children at a Tibetan Children’s school and amused by the extremely cheap desserts at the Tibetan café.

We would come back to our hotel, exhausted from the day but pumped up for the night. Groups were fluid as people drifted in and out of different rooms with ease, some fumbling around for shampoo, and some for a matchbox. Amidst all the clamor of our incessant bickering and bluff sessions, we all felt united by one purpose—that we did not let our fears prevent us from missing out on this trip. We shared childhood (read embarrassing) anecdotes and danced to old Bollywood jingles into the night (well some did, I slept. Huge regrets.) I trekked — or something close enough to a trek —with my friends, without a care in the world, without any fear of being embarrassed of my child-like naivety. I’d like to think the time spent on a stony wall, within the reclaimed cathedral just off the road, brought us closer to each other. I’d like to hope that somehow, this short tour gave us all memories to store within each fleeting moment. Before we start feeling limited by our lives and jobs, penned in by money or family, we stretched out in our bit of the leg-room and somehow, just somehow, made this tour into the road trip we all dream about.

art, india tourism, madhya pradesh, mandu, mptourism, prose, traveling, Uncategorized

With Love, from the Ruins of Mandu

“Shout out as loud as you can,” said our guide Tukaram, as we stood perched at one end of a broken wall that barely reached my waist. My sister and I were a bit unnerved with his enthusiasm, so our guide, visibly frustrated at our shyness but still undeterred, took the task upon himself.

“Will Mallika pass or fail?”

The echoes amazed me and filled the area around us, to my dismay, with the resonance of the latter. We laughed at the juvenile trickery and continued our journey around the city.

Mandu, erstwhile Mandava or Mandogarh, is a tottering city in the southwestern state of Madhya Pradesh, 60km from the city of Indore. Nothing could mark a greater difference than the towering buildings of Indore and this city of Mandu, which is closer to oblivion each passing day. Situated atop a plateau, lying close to the lazy course of the Narmada, the city was once fortified with walls stretching upto 50kms. The intricately carved walls, domes, pillars and entrances have endured centuries of dynastic wars and the harsh hands of Time.

Having been situated on the top of a plateau, mainly for strategic advancement, the city has been designed around water harvesting and conservation mechanisms, with innumerable wells, tanks and channels which direct water to the depositories, undergoing traditional means of purification through pebbles, sand and charcoal. Everywhere you look there is a beautifully carved structure that stands encased in history.

No less enchanting is the structure of Jahaz Mahal, the story of which is etched in my memory. The ‘floating palace’ as it was called when it was built, stood in the centre of man-made lakes, giving it the celestial vision of being afloat. Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji built it for his queens, concubines and the attending staff going upto thousands in number. It is one of the most elaborate extant structures of the ruined city. The royal palace complex at Mandu also includes the Hindola Mahal, or the Swinging Palace, a T-shaped structure which is a perfect specimen of the Malwa architecture.

As we negotiate the area, peppered with carved buildings encircled by broken battlement walls, Tukaram breaks into a song which is reverberated by the walls around us. A soft breeze saves us from the sultry sun that threatens to char my skin. Tukaram goes on the explain how the walls and columns were hollow structures with deep interconnected water ducts that ensured the service of water even in the most obscure corner of the palace and kept the palace cool in summers. He moves on to guide us to another area in the city and metaphorically into the past of Rani Roopmati.

We saunter into the area adjacent to the Rewa Kund, which makes up Baz Bahadur’s palace and Rani Roopmati’s pavilion. Baz Bahadur, the last independent King of Mandu fell in love with a beautiful shepherdess, Roopmati, who was also a marvelous singer. He convinced her to accompany him to the palace, agreeing to her condition that her palace must face the venerated river Narmada, which is how the foundation of the Rewa Kund was laid. The broad steps leading to the main gate of the palace are flanked on the sides by high arches, which probably served as aqueducts built into thick walls that supplied water to the palace. The love story was doomed for a premature end when Akbar invaded Mandu. The king fell in the battle and Rani Roopmati consumed poison                to avoid capture at the hands of Adham Khan.

Tukaram, consumed in his tale of love and beauty, comically fell into a small hole in the ground, amidst peals of laughter from the children nearby. He got up, dusted himself and continued stoically like nothing had transpired. He reminded me of how the present, ignorant of the majestic past, gleams at the tottering palaces and empty tanks, shrugs and looks in the other direction while those that remain entrenched in the past, only hope for reparations, for regained glory. As our trip ended, we eschewed the mundane cobbled roads and climb to the terrace of the palace to see the sky change hues. The city which once was one of the richest and also one of the biggest in India during the reign of both the Ghuri and Khilji dynasties, now sits, a lonely guardian on the walls. Men, many old timers like our Tukaram, believe that on a clear starry night, Roopmati’s voice can be felt glimmering through the air, and rippling across the surface of Narmada nearby.

In the meanwhile, hues of orange burst upon the horizon and we look till the sun is gobbled up by the distant curve.

 

 

 

 

featured image:india.com

article, marine life, ocean, REALISM, road trip, sea, traveling, Uncategorized

Jamnagar’s limestone fortress

Ankle deep waters glistening under the bright sun, with beautiful marine life, all culminate into a dream-like day. Gujarat’s town of Jamnagar, nestled near the western coast in the Gulf of Kutch, is an uncommon place for a vacation, often subdued into near oblivion by its sister towns Rajkot and Dwarka.  Jamnagar plays host to India’s first Marine Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park spread across 162.89 Square Kilometers of Marine National Park and 457.92 Square Kilometers of Marine Sanctuary.

The drive to the marine park is marked by a narrow road into the reserve. We would’ve been oblivious to its existence had my dad’s curiosity not led us to the gates with the aim of discovering that which no one knows about. And we were in for a pleasant surprise. Not just that. An archipelago of 42 islands (which are not inhabited by more than a dozen people at any time) the best being Pirotan, Karubhar, Narara, Poshitra are accessible by boat rides. One needs to carry bottled water for the lack of drinking water facilities. This untouched serene beauty is a spectacle in itself.

The coral walk, which is the most celebrated part of the Jamnagar tourism, is conducted during the low tide and takes about 3-4 hours. Coral reefs are discernible in the 1-2 feet shallow water, with mutable colours, host to a variety of small fish. During the low tide, the water recedes enough to enable a walk into the wide opening spread across a vast expanse of ocean bed, which reveal the veritable underwater forest. You don’t have to dive deep into the sea to be a witness to the marine life that makes itself visible to the naked eye in this marine park. Discovering the place on foot is marvelous. The guides will pick up a stray slimy octopus or a puffer fish, with jaws strong enough to chip off a coral! Sea turtles, lobsters, crabs, dolphins, ray fishes, jelly fish, star fish, sea anemones are other vibrant specimens of oft-sighted marine delights. . If one is lucky, dolphins can be seen rising to the surface for the delight of all the watchers. In winters, migratory birds dot the sky as travellers make their way through the shallow waters. The tranquil waters of Chejja creek are complemented by mangroves forest on both sides which trail the path to one of the islands. We walked about a kilometer into the park, with bent necks hoping to catch a glimpse of this beautiful show.

The colourful but fragile eco-system at display is unmarred by human existence owing to its almost non-existent common knowledge beyond the edges of the city. As we made our way back to our car, we looked back to see water slowly filling up the space our footprints had left. The park will live another day, safe from our destruction.

article, bosphorous, istanbul, life, LOVE, traveling, turkey, Uncategorized

ISTANBUL – A trip to the Turkish Delight

Istanbul, the gorgeous capital of Turkey, can boast of many things, being an exciting amalgamation of the old and the new, the traditional treats and the modern breath. Napoleon Bonaparte rightly exclaimed- If Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital. It has had an adventurous journey, having been founded in 660BC as Byzantium, and then falling into the hands of the Roman conqueror Constantine, who christened the place as Constantinople. It earned its new name, Istanbul, in 1930, after Turkey became a republic in 1923.

Sitting on the famed European-Asian border, the city has much to offer in terms of stunning architecture, historical delights and boat trips on the Bosphorous, one of the world’s busiest waterways, connecting countries to the Mediterranean.

The Grand Bazaar

The bazaar is famed for being the oldest and the largest covered market in the world, with over 4000 stalls to entice any shopaholic’s interest. Situated in the Old City, Kalpali Çarsi has an assortment of thoroughfares from carpets to brassware. Be sure to haggle, for the merchants are known to often bend a little.

The Topkapi Palace

Home to the stunning 86 carat Spoonmaker Diamond, the palace was once the palatial residence of the Ottoman Rulers. The garden is a stunning piece of art, and overlooks the Sea of Marmara. Containing four courtyards and a number of other smaller structures, the palace’s Construction began in 1459, ordered by Sultan Mehmed II. It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. It is now a museum and shows on display beautiful Ottoman jewelry among other artifacts.

Hagia Sophia

It transcended a journey from a church to a mosque and now finally rests as a fine museum and one of the city’s favourite destinations. The byzantine architecture, with the intricate mosaics and marble pillars make for a beautiful scene.

The Basilica Cistern

All Dan Brown fans out there will remember the mention of this place in his book titled INFERNO, where the 6th century structure does not fail to impress even the most unassuming. Known locally as the Sunken Palace, one must make an eerie-full descend into the cavern which houses three hundred and thirty six columns with bases in a few feet of water. It was earlier used to store water for the nearby buildings. It might remind you of the nail-biting end of the movie, the dramatic setting of which will make you visit this place for a closer look.

The Bosphorous

Istanbul’s waterway, which forms the continental boundary between Europe and Asia, is straddled by the metropolitan population. It divides the Asian Turkey from its European counterpart, but what it does better is give the travelers a beautiful boat-ride.  The city’s official ferry company, Sehir Hatlari, offers short, full and night cruises to suit individual needs; and for a more breath-taking local experience, hop onto a ferry bustling with Turkish tea-sippers and catch a glimpse of the sun setting across an orange sky.

Hamam

For those jet-lagged days and sore travelling feet, the experience of Hamam is a must. The traditional spa experience in the old city includes masseurs engaging in the ritualistic series of soaking, scrubbing, exfoliating and rinsing treatments. It all varies according to the bathhouse; however, if one wishes to splurge, most hotels offer modern versions of the same experience.

Galata Tower

The spectacular view of the city from this towering structure is a must see for all first-timers.

Istanbul Modern

A perfect glimpse into the contemporary art scene of the city, the converted Warehouse near Karaköy on the banks of Bosphorous, showcases works of Turkish artists, sculptors and photographers. Book a table at the outdoor terrace Restoran Im and mix Cuisine with culture which makes for a sumptuous visit.  A set of Rainbow stairs nearby join Findikli to Cihanger.

Rumeli Hisari

The ruins of an old fortress, Rumeli Hisari,are located in the Sarıyer district of Istanbul, Turkey, on a hill at the European side of the Bosphorus. Since the 20th century, the place has been a museum and also doubles up as an open-air theater for various concerts at festivals during the summer months.

 

Lastly try the Turkish coffee, which is a thick concoction of black unfiltered coffee. ‘Mandabatmaz’ is one of the most famous variants!

*Featured picture credit- onorient.com

article, bhutan, road trip, traveling, Uncategorized

A Hidden Kingdom: In the lap of Bhutan

Bhutan is very near yet almost unknown and mystic to most, who happen to relate it with last kingdom in the world and also the last Shangri-La!

Bhutan’s pristine environment offers ecosystem which is rich and diverse, due to its location and great geographical and climatic variations. Bhutan’s high, rugged mountains and valleys boast spectacular biodiversity, earning it a name as one of the world’s ten most important biodiversity hotspots. Bhutan does not have GDP but a Domestic Happiness Index. Gladly one country has its priorities straight.

The journey to Bhutan is possible in two ways. You may start by flight to Paro from various places such as Bagdogra or New Delhi also but you miss the very essence of Bhutan which you capture once you start the road journey from Phuntsholing which is about 4 hours drive from Siliguri, West Bengal.  This is not the only road entry but happens to be the most popular. There are two more road entry points from India only and there is no entry from any other country to Bhutan.

Once you enter Bhutan the calm atmosphere is as loud as anything else. The aromatic luxurious nature of the country rejuvenates one instantly. From Phuntsholling the journey to the core of Bhutan begins and it’s an exhilarating and adventurous journey to say the least. Through the mountain roads, it is almost 160km to the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu.

In Thimphu are many places that are feast to the eyes and speak to the soul.

Buddha Dordenma:

This is a short drive from Thimphu city and a lovely place on the hill. The golden statue of Buddha, one of the largest in the world, was built on the 60th anniversary of the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It’s almost 55 meter tall and is visible from Thimphu. You can see the Thimphu valley and enjoy the peace and chants of monks while the prayers are in progress. The Kuensel Phodrang nature park provides the forest cover which surrounds the statue.

Punakha Dzong

Called Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness), this Dzong is the second largest and the second oldest palace in the country and competes for the title of the most majestic of them. The spring season is the best time to visit the valley, for beautiful Jacaranda trees surround the palace, lending it their beauty and borrowing some from it in the process. Nestled between two rivers, Pho Chu and Mo Chu, it is connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge.

Tashichho Dzong, the main Dzong of Thimphu:

Situated on the western bank of the river Wang Chu, it is massive, beautiful, and timeless. It’s a Dzong along with palace for the royals. Traditionally it was the seat of the country’s civil government, the Druk Desi, and also the summer capital.  The surroundings are beautiful and mystic. The carving on the walls, prayer wheel and majestic charm make for a delightful sight.

Dochula Pass: On the road to Punakha, this pass in the snow-capped Himalayas, is the one of the highest place in Bhutan and that makes it an excellent vantage point to see the mountains. With 108 Stupas or chortens known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens” in the middle, it’s an amazing experience while you can sip your coffee or something stronger in a small but well made café.  The pass leads to the Royal Botanical Park.

Tiger’s nest or Taktsang Monastery:

This tops the chart for all the reasons to visit this country. Also called Tiger’s nest, Tiger’s nest is perched at a hill top not meant for anybody with week knees. The steep 900m climb is strenuous but the view of the Paro valley makes you forget pain. Perched on a cliff with a dazzling view of pines and rhodendrons, the monastery’s entrance descends to a waterfall close to the Snow Lion Cave. Inside the monastery, the holy atmosphere among the monks makes it very serene.

Chele La Pass:

It’s a view point 4000 meters above sea level! A breath-taking view of the pass which separates Haa and Paro valley. A lovely drive with a view of Mt Jumolhari is definitely worth the visit but be very careful in winters as the temperature drops to the wrong side of zero.

And finally for those who like to indulge in high spirits, Ara a local spirit brewed from rice or corn can be tried and for little refined taste, a local raw fresh beer brand name “Red Panda” is fresh and good for the tingling taste buds. Cheers!

*featured image credit: makemytrip.com