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27. Dec, 2012

Udaipur – Venice of the East, 007 and saris

India is a vibrant country steeped in tradition, culture and contrasts.  She boasts mountain ranges, sweeping plateaus (deccans) and deserts, and modern sky-scrapers developed next to slums and temples.

Udaipur City Palace At Night

Udaipur nestles in the south western part of Rajasthan and revels in its title of “The Venice of the East” and home to James Bond’s Octopussy.  After a few days in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, I am looking forward to discovering Udaipur’s secrets.

Travelling from Jaipur on an overnight train was supposed to deliver me to Udaipur Central energised and ready to explore what the city has in store for me.  Crawling into cot 12 in carriage B, my nightmare began.   I’m not expecting luxury. But sheets that medical staff in a war zone’s makeshift hospital would instantly reject and blankets as rough as a blacksmith’s hands soon dispels thoughts of a restful night.  I pray the train’s distinctive clickity-clak clickity-clak would be a welcome lullaby and send me into deep slumber.  And it might have done if only the train and my bunk hadn’t conspired to provide a 6 hour roller-coaster ride.

It’s amazing how quickly a tired, lethargic body can transform itself.  I rub my blood-shot eyes and marvel at Swaroop Vilas Hotel’s location.  A cold shower energises me and I’m soon tucking into scrambled eggs made with spices, onions and potatoes served with roti and accompanied by hot spicy pickles.  It is early.  A chorus of birds compete with a Bollywood actor serenading his sweet-heart on TV.  The sun lazily begins to show itself and last night is quickly forgotten.

Anil introduces himself as our chauffeur.  His air-conditioned car is surprisingly clean.  First stop is Jagdish Temple.  Exquisitely carved pillars, decorated ceilings and a spire adorned with images of dancers, elephants and musicians welcome me to this 17th century temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God.  The four armed idol of Vishnu, that is said to have been carved from single black stone, stirs me.

City Palace, Udaipur

Udaipur’s City Palace is reputedly Rajasthan’s largest.  Paintings of maharajas, Mewar art and mosaics adorn the walls.  Unobstructed views across Lake Pichola, quaint courtyards and sun-filtered rooms make it easy to understand why Udaipur’s Royal Family still occupy parts of the Palace.  I imagine myself as Roger Moore sipping vodka martini as I stroll through the labyrinth of marbled courtyards.

The short drive through the Western Ghats to the 8th century Eklingji temple gives me just enough time to admire the inside of my eyelids.  Anil warns me that “opportunists” occasionally steal shoes from outside the temple that’s dedicated to Lord Shiva.  I ponder the solution he presents me and then hesitantly remove my left shoe.  Twenty paces later, I discard my right shoe – that would keep them guessing!  Amused by his ingenuity, I progress and am welcomed by a huge sculpture of Nandi, the sacred bull who was Shiva’s loyal steed.

Hilarity ensues as I struggle to recall where I had left my shoes!  I slept well that evening.

The city buzzes with early morning activity.  Vendors set up their market stalls and swat flies; school children walk carefree in a timeless state; dogs sleep under the shade of a tree and buses crammed with at least twice their legal capacity chug slowly through dusty streets.  An old woman is bent over an old Singer sewing machine.  Other women go about their daily routines – they remind of a school of Angel Fish as they glide serenely in brightly coloured saris.

Kumbhalgarh Fort

The highlight is yet to come.    Winding roads, pot-holes and absent-minded cows make the 64 kms to Kumbhalgarh Fort seem like 640.  My first view of this 15th century construction leaves a lasting impression as I survey its perimeter walls – surpassed in size only by The Great Wall of China.  No wonder it was only captured once – and then only because the invaders poisoned the water supply.

The short walk uphill to the ‘Badal mahal’ (Palace of Clouds) rewards me with 360 degree panoramic views.  There is no way I can explore all 350 temples within the fort’s grounds.  Surrounded by 13 mountain peaks, it’s an impressive sight.

A blissful evening is spent walking through Udaipur’s narrow cobbled streets.  Cows roam without a care in the world, the sounds of children swimming in the Ghats and old men sipping piping hot chai all add to the charm.  Udaipur’s romantic nature is matched only by the warmth and friendliness of its people.  This is India showing all her endless charm.

After dinner under the stars, I’m already planning my next trip to the city of the mighty Rajputs!

Mark Gwilliam travelled with TravelMixx which offer an excellent selection of tours as well as highly customised individual packages throughout Rajasthan.  See www.travelmixx.com

25. Jan, 2012

Singapore At Its Best: 3 Reasons to Visit

Travelling in Asia will never be complete if you have not visited the beautiful city of Singapore. Don’t be fooled by its size because although this country may be small, it is the most advanced metropolis in Southeast Asia. In fact, the capital city (also named Singapore) comprises one-third of the mainland making it almost the whole country in itself. The city has continuously flourished over the past century.

Being hopelessly addicted to travelling, my itchy feet have time and again led me to this glorious city that so many people enthuse about.

I am completely amazed by the discipline of its people and the efficiency of its government. In Singapore you won’t need a car or a cab even if you are a tourist because with Singapore’s low crime rate and impressively clean and unpolluted environment you can leisurely walk to your destination without any worries.

Buses and trains are always on time and are extremely organised & they even have maps situated at each station in case you get confused. It is not at all surprising why this place has become an epitome for developing nations. These factors have made the country economically wealthy and an attraction hub to tourists who want to have a good time by experiencing Singapore at its best.

Singaporean culture is a result of different influences that came from the Chinese, Indians, English, and Malays. Because of this curious blend, the whole country has easily adapted to different lifestyles resulting in a wide variety of food choices, luxurious and classy accommodation, interesting parks and attractions, and highly technological developments.

I found these things to be true because the three main elements that have made my stay fun, exciting, and pleasurable are the food, the shopping centres and establishments, and the amusement parks.

Let’s start with the food.

If you want to perk your taste buds with aromatic Indian delicacies, it’s not a problem because you can easily go to Little India. If you crave Chinese food, take a quick bus ride to China Town and enjoy their dumplings and noodles.

All the food that I have tasted in the city are scrumptious and savoury but nothing beats the zesty chilli crab, an authentic Singaporean specialty since the 50s. Try the East Coast Seafood Centre to get a full experience of this dish. I was pleased to find the place teeming with seafood delights much to my heart’s content! The chilli crab did not disappoint me.

The spiciness of the sauce complimented the sweetness of the crabmeat, intensifying the richness of its flavour, making me want for more.

Let it all digest while you take a sip of the refreshing Singapore Sling, an enticing local cocktail created in the early 1900s that consists of pineapple juice, cherry liqueur, gin, and some lemon juice. Never leave Singapore without tasting this exotic concoction.

Let’s move on to the next best thing to do in Singapore – shop!

Yes, you got that right. Singapore is known for its sprawling shopping centres located in Orchard Road.

They offer only the best designer products such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Gucci, Chanel, and so much more! The place also houses all the latest developments and up-to-date gizmos that you can ever dream of. They even have quarterly programs and festivities that are solely dedicated to information technology.

And you know what? Tourists can refund their taxes up to 7% for a minimum purchase of SGD 200! That is one huge discount making shopping in the city all the more fun and exciting.

Lastly, sightseeing in Singapore is quite an experience.

If you are looking for a heart-stopping adventure, the Universal Studios will certainly provide this, as it is one of the best amusement parks in Asia.

Enjoy a relaxing trip with nature by enjoying the underwater world as you watch dolphins and other unique species in Sentosa. Treat yourself in a five-star hotel and play at the casino of the Marina Bay Sands or simply revel at the scenic beauty of the city in the infinity pool located at the rooftop.

You can also visit the heart of Singapore in Merlion Park where Merlion, a mythical creature that symbolizes the country’s origins, is proudly erected for everyone to see and marvel. Finally, finish your day off by unwinding at the Singapore Flyer, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel.

Marina Bay SandsFor the past four decades, Singapore has astonishingly sustained its success by developing its strengths without being overpowered by its fast economic growth. The mix of western culture and eastern lifestyle has become a perfect balance that has made the whole country efficient, comfortable, and convenient to both worlds.

Experiencing Singapore has led me to believe this, so if you want a safe and stress-free holiday in the Orient, then I would highly recommend you to visit the stunningly quaint city of Singapore, a place that you will surely enjoy.

 

 

14. Mar, 2011

MUMBAI – AN UNRIVALLED TOURIST HUB!

Why go to Mumbai

There’s no escaping it.  Mumbai is gargantuous.  With an estimated population of close to 20 million people, it is India’s largest and most cosmopolitan metropolis, and the most densely populated city on earth.  Often dubbed India’s “city of dreams”, budding young actors and actresses flock to the city hope to join Mumbai’s ever growing “Bollywood” industry that churns out in excess of 900 films each year.

It’s also India’s economic heart and boasts a vibrant stock market and business centre that caters for some of the world’s richest Indian Billionaires and real estate.  Formerly called Bombay, Mumbai is full of reminders of the days of British rule but she is also is crammed full of a colourful history that extends beyond that.

Whether it’s the aroma from spices sold on every street corner, never-ending car horns, or the gentle breeze from the Arabian Sea, you’ll need to put all five of your senses on high alert as you indulge in a city full of excesses.

1Marine Drive

Fast Facts

  • International flights are served by the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport, formerly known as the Sahar International airport and is said to be South East Asia’s largest aviation Hub. Located within close proximity of the suburbs and downtown Mumbai, the airport is spread across 1,450 acres and caters to approximately 26 million passengers annually.
  • Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport is approximately 28 kms from the city centre.  A taxi to the main tourist district, Colaba, should be approximately INR 500.  Transport options are plentiful in the city and include taxis, private cars, auto-rickshaws, buses and a very extensive rail network.
  • Mumbai’s weather is moderated by the Arabian Sea.  The best time to visit Mumbai is in the cooler winter months (October to March).  Mumbai becomes very hot and dry during the summer (March to June) until the monsoons arrive in mid-June and continue until September.
  • MasterCard and Visa is widely accepted in Mumbai, and many shops also accept American Express & Diners Club.  ATMs are widely available throughout the city and many debit cards are accepted as well.
  • Malaria is prevalent in many parts of India and therefore you should seek medical advice before travelling
  • Tipping in India has always been difficult as there are no boundaries or proper guidelines.  Many hotels and restaurants have introduced a service charge of about 10% to replace tipping.  Hotel porters expect around INR 50 to carry your luggage.  Local tour guides expect around INR 100 and I’d recommend about INR 200 per day for drivers if you have hired a car with a driver.
  • Nationals from all countries (except Nepal and Bhutan) require a valid visa to travel to India.
  • The Colaba Causeway and Fashion Street are the main shopping districts and are located in the heart of the city.

Accommodation

Mumbai has evidenced an increasing supply of rooms over recent times, resulting in the emergence of many 5 star hotels offering rooms at good rates.  Standards at the lower end of the scale can often be difficult to tolerate.  Visitors travelling on a tight budget should be prepared to spend more on hotel rooms in Mumbai than other cities on the sub-continent.  The cost of Mumbai accommodation varies but you can be sure that you’ll find a hotel room to suit your budget.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Built in 1903, The majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is centrally located and provides an oasis away from Mumbai’s hustle and bustle.  Many of its 565 air-conditioned rooms offer extensive views of The Gateway of India and Arabian Sea.  Conveniently situated less than 200 metres from the Gateway of India, it’s a perfect location to catch a ferry to Elephanta Caves, explore the city or stroll to the nearby Prince of Wales Museum.

The Comfort Inn Heritage is tucked away around a quiet corner of Byculla, the heart of Mumbai and close to major tourist attractions.  The Delightful Ramee Guestline is a chain of small boutique hotels with one handy for nearby Juhu Beach and another in the funky suburb of Khar SV.

The Hotel Godwin is a good budget choice in Colaba and close to the museuem and Gateway of India.  It has wonderful roof top garden where you can escape the city’s hustle and bustle.

Sights & Attractions Not To Be Missed

Elephanta Island:

Escape the city’s chaos and noise by taking a short ferry ride (100 rupees) from near The Gateway of India to the quiet and historic Elephanta Island.  Elephanta’s caves, which are thought to date back to the 7th Century, are a maze of ancient shrines, Hindu temples and caves dedicated to Lord Krishna and Lord Brahama.  The island was originally called Gharapuri but Portuguese sailors renamed it after they found a large stone elephant on the island.  Sadly, in 1814 the elephant figure collapsed and was relocated to Victoria Gardens and reassembled.

In 1987, it became an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The caves are open between 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Tuesday to Sunday and admission is 250 Rupees.

The Gateway of India:

Mumbai’s iconic Gateway of India is the start point for many visitors looking to explore the city.  Built in 1911 to commemorate King George V & Queen Mary’s visit, its archway stands at 26 metres and is adjoined with four turrets and intricate latticework carved on stones.  Facing the Arabian Sea, it was once the main arrival point for visitors from the west.  In 1947, British ships symbolically set sail for England from the Gateway for the last time.

Visited by millions of visitors each year, The Gateway of India symbolises Mumbai’s grandeur and proudly represents its bygone era and modern day people.  At night, its beauty is intensified by Mumbai’s bright lights and the moon casting silhouettes on the Arabian Sea.  Admission is free.

The Prince of Wales museum

Centrally located, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, as it is now called, plays a prominent part in preserving Mumbai’s & India’s extensive history.  The museum showcases more than 50,000 exhibits that represent Indian history, as well as artefacts from other countries.  The museum lies within beautifully manicured lawns and landscaped gardens.  Entrance is daily from 10.15 am to 6.00 pm, except Mondays, and admission is 5 rupees per person and 200 rupees if you wish to use a camera.

Marine Drive (“The Queen’s necklace”)

Mumbaikers love nothing better than strolling along Marine Drive’s palm tree lined coastline to catch a glorious sunset and to enjoy the cool, refreshing sea breeze.  Chowpatty Beach, at its northern end is well-known for its fast food and nightlife.  Hugging the city’s Arabian Sea coastline, Mumbai’s bright street lights illuminate its 3kms to resemble a string of pearls or “Queen’s necklace”.

Hanging Gardens (Ferozeshah Mehta Gardens)

Locals gather at The Hanging Gardens (also called) for its tranquillity and uninterrupted views over Chowpatty Beach and The Arabian Sea.  This beautiful park boasts opportunities to catch some amazing sunsets or to simply strolling throughout its gardens and hedges shaped into animals.  Situated opposite Kamala Nehru Park, it’s easily reached by public transport or by taking a taxi from the city.

The Gandhi museum (Mani Bharvan)

Situated in a quiet leafy lane, Mani Bharvan was Mahatma Gandhi’s home when he visited Mumbai between 1917 & 1934.  Visitors can view photo exhibitions and memorabilia depicting Gandhi’s life, including an old spinning wheel (“charkha”) that he used to use.  Admission is by donation between 09:00 and 18:00 on any day and Mani Bharvan is located at 19 Laburnam Rd, near Malabar Hill.

Food & drink

The history of Mumbai’s food follows its growth from a fishing village to a modern day metropolis.  As the city of dreams expanded due to wave after wave of immigrants, people from all over India brought their cooking methods and regional dishes with them.  Eating out in Mumbai is great fun and inexpensive and, whether you’re a vegetarian or not, you’ll find an ample supply of restaurants and road side food stalls to fuel your appetite.

Try Bhel Puri” which is a Mumbai speciality; it’s made from potato, a small mix of puffed rice, vermicelli and crunchy puri with tamarind sauce.  Vada Pav, better known as the Indian Burger is a deep fried potato ball with a bun.  The beachside stalls on Chowpatty & Juhu beaches attract thousands of food revellers at all times of the day.

For breakfast, try Leopold Café on Colaba Causeway.  Leopald needs little introduction due to worldwide publicity resulting from Mumbai’s horrific terrorist attack in November 2008.  The terrorist’s bullet holes are still clearly visible in the walls as a gruesome reminder of the incident.

For a real treat at lunchtime, walk into any restaurant in Mumbai and order a Gujarati Thali.  Consisting of roti, rice, daal and a sabzi (different combinations of spices and vegetables) it’s an ideal all-you-can-eat vegetarian meal.  The Golden Star Thali (Opera House, Opposite Charni Road Railway Station (East)) offers the very best in Gujarati hospitality.

For dinner, head over to the hugely popular Khyber which is located near Mumbai’s High Court and boasts a menu that is rich and diverse, reflecting from northern India and the Mughal era.  Listen to thumris & ghazals playing in the background, while your appetite is charged for a menu of exotic dishes made with fresh ingredients, and selected with great care and passion.

Mumbai’s Best Beaches

Chowpatty Beach is the city’s “public living room” where Mumbaikers go to enjoy fresh sea breezes, regardless of their wealth or stature.  Mothers and grandmothers wear vibrant pink, saffron and emerald saris and families bond over plates of bhel puri.  Juhu Beach is a sprawling beach and home to a number of Mumbai’s Bollywood stars and famous for its food stalls.  Versova beach, in Northern Mumbai’s upmarket Andheri suburb hosts a large proportion of Mumbai’s fishing community. The beach is relatively empty in the mornings, but does get crowded in the evenings and weekends.