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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bird Photography: Indian Pitta from Yala National Park

The ‘Indian Pitta’ is one of the more prettier and colourful small birds to be found in the Indian Subcontinent. This was the first time I laid my eyes on this beautiful bird and it was quite a sighting.

All pumped up Indian Pitta 
The sighting was not long in terms of time, but was quite eventful as I saw this small bird in two different forms. One, in the normal self and size and the second when it drew in air to get all fluffed up and bloated. It was quite an experience to see these forms of the same bird in less than 2 minutes. Both looked equally pretty though.

Indian Pitta at Yala 
I saw this bird in some dense forest undergrowth at the Yala National Park in South Eastern Sri Lanka. This passerine bird, breeds in the Himalayas and migrates to South Peninsular India and Sri Lanka in the winters.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Street Photography: Faces of Ladakh

Ladakh is special for many reasons…the Mighty Himalayas, the cold desert, the lack of oxygen, the remoteness, the Buddhist culture and its people. The people of Ladakh are very hospitable and have a smile on their faces even in the toughest climatic conditions. This winter, I spent 2 weeks in Ladakh and got to mingle with people from different regions of Ladakh – Leh, Zanskar Valley, Lamayuru, Changthang Cold Desert and Nubra Valley.

An elderly Buddhist An elderly Buddhist with his prayer wheel

During these interactions, I saw them in different moods and engaging in different activities. Even though I mostly took landscape shots during these two cold weeks in Ladakh, I managed to take some street and portrait shots. The one above and the ones below are a selected few of the different faces of Ladakh.

Ladakhi women - old and young Ladakhi women – old and young outside Lamayuru Monastery

A Zanskar family
A Zanskar Family

Road workers play a game of cards while basking in the midday sun
Road workers enjoy a game of cards

A Zanskar kid
A happy Zanskar Kid

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Zanskar Arts: Leh’s Prime Pashmina Shop

Shopping in Ladakh is incomplete without purchase of the rare Pashmina shawls, the knotted silk Kashmiri carpets and the Buddhist religious artefacts. Though, it is very difficult to find a place that sells authentic forms of these goods. To give you an example, there are hundreds of shops in Leh that sell the Pashmina shawls and that even pass the 'ring test’ (where the entire Pashmina shawl passes through a finger ring without getting stuck), but they are clever copies of the original.

To check the authenticity of Pashmina material, either take a knowledgeable local with it while shopping or wear it and see how fast you get warm in it. If you feel very warm in less than 3 minutes, then it has more probability of being original Pashmina material. If you still have doubts, do check out Zanskar Arts on Leh’s main market. This shop sells original stuff, but can be a bit pricey. However, you can strike a good deal if you bargain hard. Me and my friends went to this place after our local friend recommended it to us. In fact, we got lucky and our local friend joined us when we went shopping here. Since our local friend joined us, we ended up getting a slightly better cost deal. While we were checking out the wares, the shop owner showed us both original Pashmina shawls and lookalike Pashmina shawls and how both of them pass the ‘ring test’ and weigh about the same. The original Pashmina shawl can cost anywhere between 2,500 rupees to 80,000 rupees depending on the handiwork in it.

In addition to having original Pashmina material like shawls, stoles and sweaters, Zanskar Arts also has a great collection of silk knotted and woven Kashmiri carpets. These carpets come in various sizes like 3 feet by 5 feet, 6 feet by 4 feet, 10 feet by 12 feet and others. The silk knotted carpets are more expensive than the woven ones. And if the knots are more per square inch, then the price increases. To give you an idea of the price, a higher knot silk carpet of size 3 feet by 5 feet can cost you upwards of 45,000 rupees. This shop has carpets ranging from 5,000 rupees to 5 lakh rupees. And the best part is they deliver these carpets free of cost to any location in India.

Apart from Pashmina shawls and Kashmiri carpets, Zanskar Arts also deals in jewellery, gem stones and Buddhist artefacts. Their jewellery collection is quite exhaustive with rings, chains, pendants in diamond, gold, silver, precious and semi precious stones. In terms of Buddhist artefacts, they have Prayer wheels, hand beaten and machine made prayer bowls, large size statues of Buddha, Buddhist trumpets and others.

Apart from having a shop in Leh’s main market, Zanskar Arts is also present in North Goa. If you are unable to find the place, you can call 91 97642 67948 and ask for directions. While shopping here, keep in mind that this is a Kashmiri shop who keeps hefty gross margins and hence remember to bargain hard. If you seek cheaper options or smart copies, then there are a lot of options you will find in the Leh Market especially in and around Moti market.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Peruvian Night Activities

Visitors and locals alike in Peru can enjoy a wide range of night activities including the usual fare -- discos, clubs, concerts, and more -- as well as unique chances at reel deal slots to play in a Latin America Poker Tour event. Lima plays host to many of the best night activities in Peru, offering the chance to enjoy a bit of everything in a typical night out on the town, with something to cater to all tastes and preferences.

The three main areas of Miraflores, San Isidro and Barranco are the main hubs for nightlife, with each offering a slightly different spin. Miraflores is the home of many live music bars, discos, and clubs, with Parque Kennedy and the Larcomar shopping mall primary destinations. San Isidro is more upscale and subdued, while Barranco is the standard destination for tourists and locals to head to when looking to enjoy a big night out on the town.

As far as tips for enjoying night activities in Lima and other cities in Peru, you should keep a few basics in mind. Many clubs and discos don’t start filling up until well after midnight, so plan accordingly and don’t head out too early. Most clubs charge a cover fee and many have a dress code, so don’t expect to get into the best clubs if you’re wearing shorts and flip flops. The club scene can be a fickle one with the “in” places to be falling out of favour in just a few weeks or months, so be sure to ask around as to the best clubs to go to and don’t just rely on travel guides that might be badly outdated.

If you’re not into the club scene there are still plenty of night activities to enjoy, a little subtle than living in Las Vegas and experiencing their casinos and clubs though, or enjoying a night at the theatre or at dance shows highlighting some of Peru’s top dance troupes. Numerous museums also host regular activities and opera houses can also be found throughout Peru, offering the chance to spend an enjoyable evening in many different ways in the country.

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Hotel Ranmuthu–A good budget hotel on Colombo’s Marine Drive

It is quite a tough job to find a decent budget hotel in any new city. Everybody seems to entice you to stay with them and most of the reviews on the internet seem to be cooked up. Some bloggers help you find good places, but for that we end up spending quite a bit of time on online research. I came across Hotel Ranmuthu during my last backpacking trip to Colombo. I had never heard of this hotel before and did not have any time for an online review as it was a last moment decision to travel to Sri Lanka.

The Colombo-Galle railway line runs parallel to the coastline - as seen from from my hotel room 
It was my van driver who recommended this place when I landed at the Colombo airport in the wee hours of the morning. Even though it was quite late in the night/early in the morning, the reception was very cooperative in helping me check the various rooms and spoke English well. This meant two of my initial hurdles were overcome. The price for the rooms here is between 1000 and 4000 LKR depending on Single, Double or Triple occupancy and AC vs. Non AC. Again, this fitted into my budget. I opted for a single Non-AC room as I was promised that there were no mosquitoes. And true to their word, there were no mosquitoes. May be, it was the lean season for the mosquitoes. But, generally, Colombo is known for its mosquitoes and that’s why most tourists opt for AC rooms or lather themselves in mosquito repellent cream. By this time, the tiredness had got to me and I crashed with not even an inkling of an idea of the specialities of this property.

Locals and Tourists throng to Colombo's Marine Drive on a cloudy afternoon 
It is when I woke up that I realized that Hotel Ranmuthu is a sea facing property. In fact, my balcony on the 5th floor offered me great views of the Indian Ocean and the beach railway line. And when I walked outside of the hotel property, I found out that I was very close to the main business district of Colombo. All the large malls like the Crescat Boulevard, cinema complexes, five star hotels, the marine drive, the city’s best restaurants, the Fort railway station, Pettah and most of Colombo’s prime sites are a short walk away. And since it is on the Galle road, one can easily find buses and Tuk-Tuks (3 wheeler taxis) to move around. I stayed at this hotel for 3 days and 3 nights and thanks to its prime location, walked across most of Colombo’s prime areas and relaxed watching the open ocean while I was at the room.

Clouds form over the Indian Ocean - as seen from my room facing the open seas 
The only weak link about this place is the lack of an in-house restaurant. But, with so many restaurants a stone’s throw away, I never found it to be a problem. In summary, I would definitely recommend this place to a budget traveller. The rooms and attached bath and toilet are clean and I didn’t face a single problem. Only word of advice is don’t get offended by the old paint of the hotel exterior. The interiors are pretty decent. If you are interested to book your stay here, the contact numbers are 0094 11 2433986 and 0094 11 2433989. And the address is 112, Galle Road, Colombo – 3.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Guest Post: Europe’s best cities for a winter break

European city breaks in winter differ dramatically from those in summer. If you’re looking to explore gardens, relax in street cafes or stroll along river banks, a city break in winter may not be for you. But if your ideal trip involves visiting museums, galleries, enjoying cultural events or sheltering from the weather in a spa then there really isn’t a better time to get out and explore some of the most stunning cities Europe has to offer.

Here are four favourite European cities for a winter break; some with the Euro and some without. Either way, before travelling it’s important to keep up to date with exchange rates when changing money at a bureau de change. With your money sorted all you need to consider is the sights you’ll see.

Berlin
Berlin is great for exploring. You can get out and see the historical past of the city by visiting sites such as the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate. If you’re looking for some winter partying, Berlin has it all. Renowned as one of the biggest and best party cities in the world, there are numerous buzzing clubs dotted all around the city. It’s certainly something not to be missed.

Rome
You may think Rome is more of a summer destination. But it shouldn’t just be the weather that’s the real draw for this historic city. In the summer months, visitors flock to the Vatican museums to see such sites as the Belvedere Courtyard, the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, but the number of visitors and the length of queues can have a negative impact. Visiting these sites in winter, they’ll be almost deserted and you can enjoy them in peace. The same can be said for the Colosseum and other famous sites of historical interest. Winter really can be the perfect time to visit Rome.

Edinburgh
A city break doesn’t necessarily mean heading out to continental Europe. Edinburgh is one of the most popular destinations in the world, so you’d be foolish to ignore it just because it’s close to home. In winter, visitors can see the sites of Edinburgh castle and the Royal Mile as well as partaking in the famous celebrations for Hogmanay.

Poprad
The city of Poprad in Slovakia may not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking of a European city break, but it’s the perfect place for those looking for a little relaxation and a break from it all. Visitors can sit outside in a thermal spa while gazing at the impressive snow capped High Tatras Mountain peaks. After you can move inside to one of the Aqua bars and sample warming liqueurs while you soak in the water.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wildlife Photography: Mother and Young - Sri Lankan Grey Langur

Wildlife photography is tough, but pays great dividends with fantastic wild moments. But, there are some moments that are priceless, like this one, where a young Sri Lankan Grey Langur is clinging on to its mother for safety and out of fear.

Sri Lankan Grey Langaur - A mother and her young one 
I saw these motions unravel in front of me during my safari in Yala National Park. Yala National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located on the south east coast of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Grey Langaur - A mother and her baby 
It was an interesting passage of five minutes while I was watching the mother and the young watch us with rapt attention. Initially, the young one was scared and held onto its mother tightly, but once she realized that its mother is not worried, it went back to its normal suckling activity. At this point, you can see that both mother and the baby are visibly relaxed.

Young Grey Langur suckling 
And luckily for me, all these events took place in decent light, at not so far distance and for a good time duration to help me understand the parental behaviour of the Grey Langurs. These variables also helped in getting some good photographs.

B&W of Grey Langur - Mother and Young one 
Such priceless moments: the inquisitive eyes of the young, it suckling on its mother are generally hard to get and one has to have lady luck on their side to capture such moments. I guess those were my lucky moments. These lucky moments are what primes me up as a wildlife photographer!!

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Post: Finding the best deals to Goa in 2012

Getting out into the wild and exploring the beautiful beaches, lush creeks and fishing villages in India’s tourist state needn’t be a matter of “roughing it”. There are numerous resorts and resort-type towns that accommodate the high number of visitors who travel to the western region of the Konkan region to enjoy the rich wildlife and simple, holy temples of Goa. Some of the most successful resorts are based on or near Goa’s picturesque beaches:

Baga Beach is in the state located near the Calangute Village in the north of Goa. It’s warm, brown sands and bobbing fishing boats present an idyllic scene, while local tourism companies offer water sports such as skiing and diving. The wide, tidal estuary that empties into the Arabian Sea – known as Baga Creek – is a hotspot for tourists in the high summer seasons.

The largest beach in the state is Calangute Beach, also in the north of Goa, near the town of Candolim. This area attracts many visitors to enjoy local delights not restricted to the hotels, restaurants and adventure tours (such as dolphin viewing), but which involve the village’s ancient history. Candolim was one of the first villages to convert to Christianity during the Portuguese inquisition of Goa.

Moving in the other direction, Cavelossim is on the southernmost tip of the state and hosts the large Salcette Beach. The town also once hosted the temple of Shri Shantadurga who is the form of the Goddess Durga - a goddess who is commonly worshipped in Goa owing to her patronage towards fisher folk. The temples were traditionally built over anthills, although many were destroyed by missionaries, and the Shanta Durga was shifted from Cavelossim to Kavalem in the early 18th Century.

Not just renowned for its beautiful beaches and rich wildlife, Goa is packed with history and ancient architecture. Book cheap holidays for 2012, and explore the many facets of one of India’s most attractive states.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ajith Safari Jeep Tours: Beware of this Wildlife Tour Operator

Ajith Safari Jeep Tours is a travel agency focusing on arranging wildlife and camping tours around Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. This travel agency is run by Ajith Priyantha and can be seen on the website www.yalasafari.lk. Recently, me and my friends had a bitter experience with this agency while planning our wildlife tour inside Yala and we were put through a whole bunch of hassle and it was only with a lot of trouble that we managed to make things work for us.

The Ajith Safari Jeep Tours have decent jeeps and drivers, but they don’t have knowledgeable guides and most of his employees will break all jungle rules to make a quick buck. But, this is not the primary reason for my unhappiness. The owner of this travel agency is not a man of his words. He will promise you something and deliver you something else. That is precisely what happened with us and which left us totally stunned. Also, he charges quite a premium for his services. Be sure to bargain real hard if you go on a wildlife tour with him. In some cases, he has kept more than 100% profit margins, while the other agents keep 20-25%.

If you do end up going on a wildlife tour with this agency, do get all your plan completely chalked out and to the last detail lest you end up in a soup with basic facilities and a bad tour. To help fellow travellers get more details on this unethical travel agent, I have provided all the contact details below:

Name: Ajith Priyantha
Travel Agency Name: Ajith Safari Jeep Tours
Website: www.yalasafari.lk
Email: ajithpriyantha@yahoo.com
Office Phone: +94 47 2237557
Address: No. 418/A, Debarawewa, Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka

Personally, I would not recommend this tour operator to anyone. Such was my experience!

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Glenfall Resort: Decent Budget Resort in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Backpackers and budget travellers searching for decent budget accommodation at Nuwara Eliya, the tea capital of Sri Lanka should give Glenfall Resort a try. The Glenfall resort property is located at about a 5 minute walk from the Nuwara Eliya main market and towards the Badulla road direction. The property is beautifully set amidst green surroundings and is a decently run place.

In terms of cost, this place is between 1500 LKR and 3500 LKR. A hard bargain should get you a good deal. Rates might be slightly higher during peak tourist season (Dec to Feb and Apr-May). In terms of facilities, the place has a library, helpful management and a restaurant that cooks pre-ordered meals. The rooms are very clean, offer quilts and running hot and cold water. Some rooms also have television in them.

Glenfall’s main asset is its proximity to the main market of Nuwara Eliya without the crowd and the noise. I stayed at this place during my recent backpacking trip and was very satisfied with my stay. Hence, would recommend it as a great budget accommodation option.

For those who wish to book accommodation at this place, please reach out to D G L Dasanayake, the owner of this place. The contact numbers are +94 522223182 and +94 522223364. The email id is glendid@sltnet.lk. And the complete address is No. 03, Glenfall road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Open Talk on Travel for Darter Photography

Last Sunday, I was invited by Darter Photography, a boutique photography tour operator to give a talk on my travel experiences to their customers on the occasion of Darter Photography’s first anniversary. The event, held at the Page Turner’s bookstore on MG Road, Bangalore got about 50-55 participants and was a great forum to meet fellow travellers and photographers. I was the non-Darter speaker and spoke about my travel experiences, especially my 26 month break from work. This was followed by macro and wildlife photography sessions by two of Darter’s participants and then closed by sessions by Arun Bhat and Shreeram M V, founders of Darter Photography. As the session came to an end, Darter shared their travel plans for 2012 and it was great to hear about their international tour plans especially Bhutan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Kenya. Darter seems to have gathered good popularity in their first year and I wish them all the very best in 2012 and the future.

My presentation, which is primarily a photo slideshow was well received both at the event and in the social network circles. Hence, thought it would be appropriate for me to post it on my blog. Hope you go through a whirlwind tour of India while scrolling through it. A copy of the presentation (PDF format) can be downloaded here. For those who do not wish to download, scroll through the rest of the post for the full presentation.

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