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Friday, November 30, 2012

Day 3 Digest from Ayyuthaya and Bangkok, Thailand

For the earlier daily travel digests from my South East Asia Backpacking trip, look here.

Day 3 was a hectic tour day for me. The previous day, we had arranged ourselves a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ayyuthaya Historical Park. The cost of the tour was 700 THB per head and we were supposed to be ready by 7 AM. The wake up came around 6:30 am and by the time we had finished our breakfast, a Toyota Commuter van was waiting for us. From then on, we were taken to a place where other tourists like us were brought from different parts of the city and tickets were validated. From here, we drove with one short pit stop to Ayyuthaya, about 120 kms from Bangkok. The initial stretch had some traffic, but then on it was smooth sailing. I have a lot of respect for Thailand’s road system.

But, this is where the good part of  our tour ended. From here, about 40 or even 50 of us from different vans were assigned one guide. This guide would simply wave a piece of paper trying to grab our attention. Then, he would say a word or two about the place and explain to us the time within which we have to return to our vans. Then he would say, “Now go Photograph”. And then we would roam aimlessly without any guide explaining us any stuff or helping us out with view points. We could manage this in the early hours of the morning as the weather was pleasant, but as the day got hotter, our spirits sagged and no one was there to lift us.

In the morning session, we were taken to 2 or 3 temples amidst ruins. Then, there was a buffet lunch that I don’t even think is worth talking about. The less said the better. Then there was the sleeping Buddha, some big stupas and by the time we boarded our vans to Bangkok, we were dead tired.

When I stepped foot on Khao San road in Bangkok, I vowed that I would not repeat the mistake of taking such a tour. In my mind, it is a perfect waste of time and money. By the time we reached the hostel, we were so tired that there was no reserve energy even for a shower and off we went to sleep. Dinner helped us re-energize for a while, but the day’s energy drain made me hit the bed pretty soon.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

17 Random Things about Bangkok

I have been staying the last 6 days in Bangkok, during which, I have roamed a lot of its streets, be it downtown, old city, the railway station, the bus station, its malls and many more. Here are is list of some random things that I have experienced in Bangkok.

1) Bangkok is an unbelievably clean city. Literally speaking, I haven’t seen any garbage or muck lying around anywhere.

2) There is no wonder that Thailand is called the ‘Land of Smiles’. The people are super helpful, always polite and inviting.

3) You can literally eat off the road in Bangkok. Whether, you are a meat-lover, vegetarian eater or fruit lover, you will find options galore and at reasonable prices.

4) The amount of fresh fruits that you see on the roadside of Bangkok is unbelievable. Be it rambutan, mangosteen, litchi, oranges, papaya, banana, big guavas, dragon fruit and more, you are in for a super duper detox treat. And the fruits come in jumbo sizes. They are super fresh as they come straight from the fruit orchards.

5) Honking is nearly negligent on the city roads. Even the driving sense is like the western world. Very sensible and patient drivers who follow the yield and drive concept very well.

6) Open air Tuk Tuks are more expensive than air conditioned metered taxis in Bangkok. May be, the tuk tuks are more expensive because they have the ability to weave through the city traffic.

7) Bangkok’s Hau Lumpong railway station is cleaner than most of India’s airports. The people are very helpful too.

8) Eve though Bangkok is fiercely popular with tourists and is quite a cosmopolitan town, most of the people and especially the working class speak no English.

9) Bangkok people are very chic when it comes to fashion. They seem to adorn themselves with the latest clothes trending in the world, great boots, a lot of make-up, hair coloring and the works.

10) Bangkok women are very petite, cute and most of them are proper head turners.

11) Bangkok wakes up early and everything happens early…breakfast, lunch, dinner and sleep.

12) Most of Bangkok does not believe in a proper meal. Everyone seems comfortable to pick snacks and food stuff off the road while they are moving from one place to another.

13) You can never predict the weather in Bangkok. At one moment, it will be clear, blue skies and another moment it will be pouring heavily and then back to blue skies. But, it will nearly always remain sultry.

14) Bangkok is full of markets. There are day markets and night markets, which basically ensure that you have a 24x7 shopping experience, albeit in different places.

15) There are gadgets everywhere in Bangkok. The iPhone doesn’t feel luxurious anymore. Almost everyone has a iPhone here. The Gadget markets especially at Pantip Plaza are mind boggling.

16) People celebrate their festivals with fervor here. I was here during Loi Krathong, one of their smaller festivals and was amazed at the crowds that turned up near the river and at temples. I am sure Songram will be a much bigger crowd puller.

17) Internet is everywhere in Bangkok, including wifi hotspots and the works, but I somehow feel that 3G prices are still on the expensive side in Thailand.

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3 Howw Hostel, Bangkok: A Hostel that feels like home

Hostels are mostly preferred by backpackers and young travellers since you have to live in a dormitory and it is assumed such hostels provide only basic facilities. But, not all hostels are like that. An example in case is the newly constructed 3 Howw Hostel where I have been staying for the last 6 days. This place is sparklingly clean, air-conditioned, has free wi-fi, is affordable, is safe, puts you in the company of interesting travellers and gives you amenities like safety lockers, large size television, option of a light breakfast in the morning and much more.

Co-Founder of 3Howw Hostel on the festival day of Loi Krathong
The best part about this place are its 3 co-founders, Kho, Priaw and Nadis. These guys are friends from university who started this place in Sep 2012. The hostel is located on Samsen Soi 4 and about 6-7 minutes walk from the famous Khao Sao area of Bangkok. Most of the markets, the road side stalls, the Khao San bars, the cooking classes are all close by. And since the hostel is located close to a temple, the road around it is very safe, less crowded and less noisy.

The hostel has a 10-bed mixed dormitory, a female dormitory, 6 bed and 4 bed dormitories and private rooms with shared or private bathrooms. The cost varies from 370 baht per person per night for a mixed bed dormitory to around 1000 baht for a private deluxe room. Cost can increase during the holiday seasons and some bargains can be struck if you are staying for a longer duration. The hostel owners will also ensure that they go out of their way to help you with directions, planning, arranging tours, commute and all the good stuff. They are really keen to ensure that you have a good time staying with them.

For photos about the place look them up on their facebook page. You can also book with them through booking.com, agoda.com and hostelworld.com.

I would definitely recommend staying with them if you their price falls within your budget. I will definitely return to stay with them whenever I am in Bangkok. I really like the place.

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Famous Tuk Tuks of Thailand

Before you set foot on the roads of Thailand, your idea of a Tuk Tuk is a simple three-wheeled vehicle that is used for public transport, but actually it is much more. It is the backbone of commute in crowded cities like Bangkok where they weave through the traffic in a-la James Bond style. Their boom boom silencers leave nothing to your imagination and when you sit on it you can feel the adrenalin rush.

Boom Boom Tuk Tuks of Thailand
Unlike the Tuk Tuks in Sri Lanka or the Indian sub continent, the Tuk Tuks of Thailand are designed like a car with a clutch and brake on the feet and a gear shift in between both legs. It is one way to feel the wind in your hair in sultry Bangkok. Do make sure you take a Tuk Tuk ride when you are next time in Thailand. Else, you will never know what you’ve missed.

P.S. Do your bit of bargaining before you get into one else you will be taken on a ride (literally and technically).

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Travel Checklist for Long Backpacking Trips

Every traveller needs a checklist to see if they are carrying all the important stuff that they need on their trip. Even the most seasoned traveller can either miss stuff or carry a bit more. Both situations can cause problems sometimes. I am currently on a 5-6 month backpacking trip across South East Asia and the post below is a travel checklist or packing list that I prepared and followed. The idea was to ensure that I do not carry too much weight, ensures safety for my stuff from the elements and miscreants and is easy for me to lug my stuff around the city, at bus stations, railway stations and at airports. So far it looks like I am doing good, though I will have a better idea when I finish my trip and at that time, I will update this post with my feedback and comments.

Travel Checklist to help you pack for your long backpacking tripsNote: The below list is for a MALE in his early 30s.

Important
1) Passport with at least 6 months validity, though more is advised
2) Yellow fever card if you are coming from an infected country
3) Travel Insurance document for the length of your journey to take care of contingencies and medical emergencies
4) Credit Card – 2 (one for regular use and one for backup)
5) Debit Card – 2 (one for regular use and one for backup)
6) Forex, as required. Though, you can withdraw from the country using your debit/ATM card
7) Flight Tickets
8) 16 Passport size photographs (for visas and other documentation)
9) Accommodation vouchers, if you have booked in advance
10) Soft copies of all important travel documents in hard disk and/or on the cloud (web)

Baggage and Important Accessories
1) Backpack with rain cover – don’t put stuff into this that you don’t want to check in or leave at your hostel/guest house
2) Daypack with rain cover – put all valuable stuff in it
3) Money pouch or waist belt to be worn inside clothes
4) Copy of all important documents in backpack. Copies include (bills of all camera gear so that you don’t get questioned at customs, passport, visa, travel insurance)
5) Bed sheet – 1 – in case your hostel doesn’t provide you one

Electronics
1) Camera, Lens, Batteries, Charger, Filters, Battery Grip, Memory Cards, Card Reader and Camera Strap
2) Cellphone and Cellphone charger
3) Earphones
4) 2 TB Portable HDD in pocket size
5) Laptop and Laptop charger
6) Hair trimmer and charger
7) Travel Adaptor (that can handle multiple country plug points)

Footwear
1) Normal canvas or walking shoes – 1 pair
2) Sandals – 1 pair – ideally one that is rugged enough for walking long distances, for water sports and can be used as bathroom slippers

Clothes
1) Warm Jacket – 1 (for 0-10 degree celsius)
2) Day-to-Day use jacket – 1 (for air conditioned travel and slightly nippy nights)
3) Half sleeve shirt – 3
4) Track Pants – 3
5) Night Shorts – 4
6) Day Shorts – 1
7) T Shirts – 5
8) Vests – 9 pairs
9) Bandana – 8
10) Thin Bathing Towel – 1
11) Socks – 7 pairs

Tools/Gear
1) Guide Books
2) Swiss Army Knife
3) Headlamp and Batteries (1 set in headlamp and one in spare)
4) Sunglasses – 1 pair

Toilette Kit (Small to medium sizes)
1) Soap bar and Soap box or Liquid Soap
2) Shaving Kit
3) Deodorant
4) Toothbrush
5) Toothpaste
6) Cold Cream
7) Chapstick/Lip Balm
8) Mosquito repellant (30 DEET minimum)
9) Washing Powder – 4 or 5 sachets

Miscellaneous
1) Poly Bags (Trash Bags or Plastic Bags) – to carry dirty laundry and/or for protecting clothes and gear from the elements
2) Zip Loc Bags (for storing  papers, money, important documents, wallet, etc.)

First Aid Kit
For a detailed first aid travel kit, look up here.

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Air Asia Experience

I recently took an Air Asia flight from Chennai to Bangkok. This was my first experience with Air Asia and I was really happy with their service that I will travel again with them. Here are some comments/thoughts from my experience that other travelers might find useful.

1) Air Asia is ideal for budget travelers since they break-up all the cost components. You pay for water, food n beverages on flight, booking a seat, booking a seat with extra leg room, if you are planning to check in baggage (15 kg, 20 kg, 25 kg), if you are planning to carry sports equipment and the works. While this helps reduce the cost for the ultra light traveler and for the one who books online and in advance, it puts a little bit of stress on people who are aware of such breakups. For those people, it would be advisable to read the step by step manual on Air Asia site.

2) Water, Food n Beverages are expensive if you buy on the flight. For example, a 200 ml bottle of water is 30 baht (~60 INR). Either you carry it on your own or ensure you book it online for a cheaper price.

3) If you are tall like me (I am 6 foot 3), do ensure you take the seats with more leg room. Else, you are bound to be cramped in your normal seat and this will hurt if you are on a long flight.

4) Same with baggage weight. Weigh in advance from home and book online to get a cheaper deal. Cabin baggage limits are 7 kilos with one hand bag or laptop bag. They are pretty strict about cabin bag weight and size.

5) The airline in-flight crew and ground staff are also pretty helpful in case you are confused or need any help.

6) Web checkin if you can else you end up paying if you print your boarding pass at the counter.

Air Asia Check-in process
Web Check-in at home or print boarding pass at mobile kiosk in airport –> Drop your baggage at checkin counter and get your passport verified –> collect verification slip –> clear immigration –> clear security –> Board aircraft.

Air Asia Deals
Air Asia is one of the fastest growing airlines in the world and are very well connected in South East Asia. And in line with that standard, they offer some brilliant deals all year around and especially if you are booking in advance. Keep checking their website. To give you an example, you can get a Chennai – Bangkok return flight for INR 6,000 to 7,000, which is much lower than what you would pay for a domestic flight.

My Review
I was very happy with my Air Asia experience. I will definitely fly again with them.

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Day 2 Travel Digest from Bangkok, Thailand

For my earlier daily travel digests from my south east asia backpacking trip, click here.

The headache of Day 1 had disappeared. Looked like my body was adjusting quickly to the Bangkok humidity and thankfully this helped me in enjoying this vibrant city even more.

The 1st day’s walk to Grand Palace had ensured that we knew your way around Khao San and nearbouts and hence we decided that we would walk all the way to the Chao Phraya river today.

Reached the Chang Pier next to the Grand Palace only to find that boats from here charge 700 baht per person to goto Wat Arun that you could see in the horizon. We smelled a scam as our hostel folks had spoken  about a 3 baht ferry ticket. We looked around and figured that may be we should walk to the next pier – Tha Thien.

But, the market around Chang Pier seemed very interested so we slowly walked through each shop in the market before we reached Tha Thien. And as expected, we got a 3 baht ferry ticket from here.

Now, let me explain the Chao Phraya ferry scene. It is a combination of tourists plus school children plus locals plus workers and more. Hence, you can find an interesting ecosystem on the boat. Also offers interesting opportunities for doing street or portraits.

Coming to Wat Arun or the temple of dawn is a temple that towers on the western bank of the river and boy is it big. You get a good idea of its height when you climb the entire flight of steps to its mid way point, from where you get a good view of the Bangkok landscape.

On the way back, we decided to explore the market at depth and even tried out some interesting dishes. I tried the exotic fruits of Thailand while my friend couldn’t keep his mind away from the seafood. The evening was a downpour, which limited us the opportunity to explore much and then we were tired too as we had walked more than 10 kilometers today.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Day 1 Travel Digest from Bangkok, Thailand

The 1st day of my long journey into south east asia. Here are snippets from that day:

1) The Air Asia flight was fairly comfortable. Loved their idea of breaking up all cost components on a flight, Makes total sense for budget travellers.

2) The immigration experience at Don Mueng airport in Bangkok was a breeze even though I had to wait in queue for over 20 minutes even at 4 am.

3) Bangkok is a mighty well developed city. It’s road networks are on par with some of the bigger cities in the world. Thankfully, my long journey from the airport into the old city was fairly quick due to the early morning hours.

4) Checked into 3 Howw Hostel near Khao San road, a lovely hostel which hardly feels like a hostel.

5) Crashed into bed to wake up with a bad headache. I guess it was due to a combination of late night travels, lack of sleep, dehydration and high humidity levels.

6) Had Phad Thai lunch at one of the road side stalls on Khao San road, before walking the entire distance to the Grand Palace, while soaking in the sights of the fast moving Bangkok city.

7) Grand Palace was fairly crowded as it was a weekend day. The weather was cloudy thankfully and we explored the entire palace and the temple of the Emerald Buddha. The entry ticket of 400 baht per person is may be a bit on the higher side.

8) On our return to the hostel, the legs were tired and the headache was getting stronger. A short nap at the hostel didn’t help. The fish sauce in the Phad Thai created an unpleasant flavor for me in my mouth.

9) Thankfully, all this was set to rest when we had a great dinner at May Kaidee’s vegetarian restaurant, near Khao San road. Thankfully, this was a great end to a long and tiring day.

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May Kaidee’s: A Vegetarian’s Delight in Bangkok, Thailand

It is tough for a vegetarian to adjust in Thailand. It is not just because they put meat into every dish, it is also the fact that they put fish sauce into everything for flavor. And the worst part is that it is very difficult to communicate our choices to the road side vendors and restaurants because they hardly speak anything except Thai. And if you do find English speaking people in restaurants, then that restaurant ends up being expensive.

May Kaidee's - A Vegetarian's Delight in Thailand
But amidst all this, you find a savior like May Kaidee’s, a vegetarian restaurant located near Khao San in Bangkok. This restaurant, not only helps you taste some great vegetarian dishes in Thai style, but also helps you understand the Thai style of cooking, which is primarily based on spices and curries and vegetables are an integral part of their cooking.

A satisfied meal at May Kaidees
It is here that you get to taste Thai delicacies like Phad Thai, Maasaman curry, Tom Yum Na soup, Tom ya na soup, brown sticky rice (which I absolutely love), Yellow curry, Green curry, sea weed soup and more. In addition, you get to taste local sweets and fried snacks, which are absolutely yumm.

Inside the Khao San May Kaidee restaurant
Once you understand what vegetarian options you have in Thailand, it becomes easy for you to go ask for that in the rest of the road side shops in Thailand. Basically, a restaurant like May Kaidee’s sets a good benchmark in your imagination of Thai food.

Really Yumm Thai Veg Food
The cost is also not too high. Buffets go at 250 baht per head and drinks are separate. Do remember to taste the Thai iced cold tea, which is pretty cool. You will always find a good crowd at Ma Kaidee’s and hence always go with some time at hand. Sometimes they do throw up weekend offers too.

Assorted Vegetarian Menu at May Kaidee Restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand
If you are interested in cooking or learning to cook Thai food, May Kaidee’s also has daily cooking classes, which are very popular among foreign tourists. The costs are around 1000-2000 baht per day per head.

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thailand Visa for Indians

If you are an Indian citizen, getting a Thai tourist visa is pretty simple. There are 2 options. Either you get a visa in advance from the Thai embassy in India or get it on arrival at any of Thailand’s immigration points.

Thai visa for Indian passport holders
Option 1: Visa in advance from India (Single entry or Dual entry)

1) Passport with 6 months validity
2) Return tickets
3) Copy of your credit card or copy of 6 months bank statement
4) 2 Passport size photographs with white background
5) Thai visa application form

Cost (for single entry): INR 2000 (Thai visa cost) + 600 (VFS cost) + 0-500 (your visa agent cost)

Validity: Visa is valid for 3 months from date of visa at embassy and you will be allowed to stay for 2 months in Thailand. If you have dual entry visa, then 2 months as a whole in 2 separate visits within 3 months.

You can either go through any of the visa agencies or go directly through the Thai embassy.

At immigration counter: No questions are asked, though sometimes they might ask you for hotel address and $500 USD  or equivalent cash.

Option 2: Visa on Arrival (works for those who are on short trip)
1) Passport with 6 months validity
2) Return tickets within 15 days
3) Copy of your credit card or copy of 6 months bank statement
4) 2 Passport size photographs with white background
5) Currency of 500 USD or equivalent
6) Accommodation vouchers

Cost: 1000 Thai Baht

Validity: 15 days on a single entry

At immigration counter: Fill immigration form on aircraft. Stand in VOA queue. Fill VOA form. Take Token. Stand in VOA queue. Pay money. Get VOA. Stand in immigration queue and get stamping.

All this information is dated today – Nov 24, 2012 as I landed in Bangkok’s Don Mueng airport and got first hand information of the process.

Personally, I would recommend VOA if you are on a short trip and visa in advance if you are on a longer trip or planning multiple entries. VOA might take a bit more time and payment will have to done only in Thai Baht.

While this article is primarily targeted for people looking for a tourist visa, those looking for work permits, business visas and jobs in Thailand can look up the Search Jobs Abroad website.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lake Nakuru National Park: The place to see the most fabulous bird spectacle in the world

Small in size, but rich in bio diversity, Lake Nakuru is known for its birdlife, with more than 500 species listed. The avian highlights are the the millions of flamingo that gather along its shore and the pelican that cluster on the southern floodplain. Nakuru is a stronghold for both of Africa’s endangered rhino species, and there is probably no better place in East Africa to observe the white rhino. While flamingo and rhino top most visitors’ wish list, Nakuru offers excellent game viewing and bird watching, with all the Big Five present, alongside Giraffe, waterbuck, gazelle and baboon.

These flamingos like the algae rich waters of the Rift Valley lakes especially Lake Nakuru and Lake Bogoria
Following are some of the key specialties of Lake Nakuru National Park:
A Marabou Stork lands next to Great White Pelicans and African Spoonbills
1) Flamingoes on Lake Nakuru

The shallow algae rich waters of Lake Nakuru attracts more than 2 million flamingoes. The biggest numbers can be seen during the dry season. When the lake is full, the flamingoes are known to migrate to another Rift valley lake, Lake Bogoria or sometimes Lake Turkana.

White Rhinoceros - the second largest land mammal in the world
2) Rhino Sightings

A dozen white and 20 black rhino were translocated to Lake Nakuru in the 1990s and have since bred to form populations of around 50 of each species. The white rhino in particular is common on the lake’s southern floodplain.

Brilliant contours on the common zebra3) Acacia Forest
The southern part of the park supports a cover of lush acacia woodland dominated by the fever tree. This is the best place to look for the black rhino, lion, leopard and woodland birds.

Stunning Lake Nakuru landscape from Baboon's cliff view point
4) Baboon Cliff

This view point, situated in the middle of the park offers great vistas of the lake and the surrounding hills and forests.

Rothchild's Giraffe
5) Rothschild’s Giraffe

Lake Nakuru is one of those few places in East Africa where one can see the Rothschild’s giraffe in the wild. The population of this Giraffe at Nakuru is the second highest after Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda and the largest in Kenya.

The flamingos grab all the photographer's attention at Lake Nakuru6) Euphorbia Forest
The Rift Valley escarpment rising to the southeast of Lake Nakuru supports Kenya’s largest concentration of the cactus-like euphorbia, a striking tree-sized succulent whose thick sap is poisonous to most animals.

Cape Buffalo rests in the swamp land of Lake Nakuru
Since Lake Nakuru is a small park, one can easily cover all of its routes within a single day. But, personally, I would recommend that you stay here for at least a couple of days to soak in the pristine beauty of this rift valley lake. Either people visit this lake as a day or weekend trip from Nairobi or visit enroute to Maasai Mara Game Reserve or Samburu National Reserve.

A male Impala walks on the jeep track at Lake Nakuru National Park
As with most other parks of Kenya, no one is allowed to get down from their vehicles during the safari. But, a small exception is made at 3 spots in this national park. One is the place near the lake, where birders can park their tripods and photograph the flamingos and pelicans. The other is the area around Baboon’s cliff and the third is the ‘Out of Africa’ view point. Both Baboon’s cliff and Out of Africa are popular picnic spots for the locals.

Hamerkop near the lake fringes
In terms of accommodation, the park has two wildlife lodges, Lion Hill Lodge and Lake Nakuru lodge. Apart from these, one can also pitch in their own camps, though mosquitoes and baboons can cause a racket.

An African Spoonbill standing on one leg
The safari timings remain sunrise to sunset, but unlike the other parks, most of the park stays dark due to the extremely tall tree cover. Hence it is my recommendation that you spend the sunrise and the sunset hours towards the southern side of the park where the golden hues will form a beautiful glow on the animals and the birds feeding in the floodplains.

Blue hues of the evening sky at Lake Nakuru
If hippos interest you, go near the mouth of the Makalia, Njoro or Enderit rivers as the hippos like the freshwater that the river brings. The best place to see the cape buffalo is in the swamps next to the lake. In all probability, you will see the buffalo wallowing in the mud.

Lesser Flamingos and their reflections on the waters of Lake Nakuru
This is one place that you should not miss while planning a wildlife holiday in Kenya. Just the sheer number of flamingos are enough to keep you enthralled for a couple of days.

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Gunung Mulu National Park: Prized Jewel of Sarawak

Gunung Mulu National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is located in the Sarawak part of Malaysian Borneo. It is an inland expanse of diverse terrain vegetation with unique cave systems and limestone features, including the spectacular pinnacles, as well as some of the most magnificent landscapes in the land.

Rock Pinnacles of Gunung Mulu National Park
Gunung Mulu offers great excitement for the adventure seeking traveller. Here are some of the highlights:

1) Trek on the world’s longest canopy skywalk and be greeted by rich species of insects and birds
2) Take a boat ride on the Melinau river and soak in the beauty  of the virgin rainforests
3) Walk into Lang cave, one of the largest limestone caves in the world
4) Explore Deer Cave, the largest single cave passage in the world

This national park, named after Mount Mulu, the second highest mountain in Sarawak is famous for its limestone karst formations, enormous caves, vast cave networks, rock pinnacles, cliffs and gorges. And all this is surrounded by pristine equatorial rainforests that plays host to rich fauna and flora.

Some of the animals found here are: Gibbons, Orangutans, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, small barking deer and mouse deer. A lot of plant species , flowering plants, trees and fungi call this their home.

Access to this place is over air from Mulu Airport that is connected to Miri, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu or via the river from Miri.

Note: Photos in this post have been used with written consent from Beehive Communications on behalf of Tourism Malaysia.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The People of Malaysia

The cultural diversity of Malaysia has been a long time in the making. It can trace its origins back to the first century AD, when the Malay archipelago became an important link in the developing trading network between Africa and China. The resulting influx of people began a process that has resulted in a colorful, multicultural society which has experienced hundreds of years of hybridization and heterogeneity.Here are some of the groups that make up the people of Malaysia.

Traditional Malaysian Dance
Indigenous People
Peninsular Malaysia’s indigenous people are referred to as ‘orang asli’, which in Malay means original people. They make up less than 0.4% of the population and tend to live on the margins of society. There are 18 groups, classified into three main groups – Negrito (oldest people in Malaysia), Senoi (Mongoloids who settled around 2000 BC) and Aboriginal Malay (who arrived around 3,000 years ago).

Malays
The Melayu people arrived in the Malay archipelago some 3,000-5,000 years ago from Southern China and Taiwan. In Malaysia, Malay culture and language show strong Javanese, Sumatran, Siamese and especially Indian influence. Linguistically, Malay is Austronesian, but some vocabulary has been absorbed from a slew of other languages including Arabic, Sanskrit, Tamil, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and English. Traditionally, agrarian, the Malay, who make up more than half of Malaysia’s population have been turning towards industrialization and urban living.

People of Malaysia
Sabah and Sarawak

Commonly referred to as natives of East Malaysia, the people living in the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak are indigenous. Of the 39 groups of indigenous Sabahans, the largest is Kadazandusun, who live in northwestern and central Sabah, mainly in urban areas. The Murut, the ‘hill people’ of northeastern Sabah were purportedly the last group to give up head-hunting. Most of the coastal dwellers are made up from the Bajau and Malayic families, traditionally skillful fishermen and boatmen. Sarawak is home to 29 ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Iban, who migrated from Kalimantan, and so are related to the Bornean Dayaks. The Bidayuh, Melanau, Lun Bawang, Kelabit and the Penan are some other indigenous groups of Sarawak.

Indians
Indian traders arrived in northern Kedah in the first century AD, leaving a lasting influence on Malay culture and language. But, today’s Malaysian Indians are descendants of workers imported by South Asia by the British. The majority are Tamil, with small numbers of Sikhs and Sri Lankans. Today, Indians make up Malaysia’ largest number of professionals per capita, notably doctors and lawyers. Many also run their own businesses.

Malaysian Indigenous People
Chinese
The Chinese community makes up around 24 percent of the country’s population, living mainly in urban areas. Like the Indians, Malaysian Chinese are descendants of workers imported by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries. They make up the majority of the middle and upper income classes. Comprising three main dialect groups, Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka, the Chinese are mainly Taoist/Buddhists or Christian.

Eurasians and other communities
There are small communities of Malaysians of mixed Asian and European ancestry, mainly Portuguese, Dutch and English. Eurasian communities were established in Melaka during the Portuguese colonial period in the 16th-17th centuries. There are many other small communities who make up Malaysia’s labor class, like an Indonesian room cleaner, a German hotel general manager and a Nepali Gurkha security guard.

Note: Photos in this post have been used with written consent from Beehive Communications on behalf of Tourism Malaysia.

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Leh Palace: Rich Ruins that overlook the capital of Ladakh

The Leh Palace that was built in the 17th century by King Sengge Namgyal today exists in a semi dilapidated condition, but exudes the same aura as it looks upon the Himalayan kingdom of Leh. It is one of those places apart from Shanti Stupa and the monastery nearby that offers panoramic views of Leh town.

Leh city from on top of Leh palace
Reaching it is fairly easy. There are 2 options. One is to take a vehicle right up to it, but the one I recommend is to reach the main Leh market and climb the steep slopes to Leh palace. This climb should take you 10-15 minutes and passes through rows of Ladakhi houses and shops. In case you get lost, the locals will be kind enough to help you get back on track.

The climb to Leh Palace
This palace, currently being restored by the Archaeological survey of India, is open to the general public. The best views can be seen from the roof of this palace, wherein you will see the Zanskar range to one side, the Ladakh range to the other and the bustling Leh town right below it.

Ladakhi Building enroute to Leh palace
This palace modeled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet is based on medieval Tibetan architecture. The main features of this style of architecture are massive buttressed walls and overhanging wooden balconies. One can visit the palace museum to see the rich collection of artwork, murals and jewelry that used to exist within the palace in its heydays.

Leh Palace signboard
This is one place you should visit if you are in Leh. For best views go during sunrise or sunset. For a full view of the palace, stop by the main parking lot in the market.

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Exploring the Marine Life of Malaysia

The seas of Malaysia are among the most species rich on earth. Highlights include manta rays, whale sharks, dugongs, barracuda, lion fish, giant moray eels, sea turtles and sea snakes. The most popular diving sites include Pulau Sipadan, Pulau Mabul, Mataking, Kapalai, Layang-Layang, Labaun, Pulau Payar marine park near Langkawi. This includes shallow water reefs, wall dives, wreck dives and night dives. And all these places offer great opportunities to see the marine life up close. Here are the six exotic species of marine life that you might encounter while diving in Malaysia.

Diving in Malaysia
1) Hawksbill Turtle
The hawksbill turtle is a critically endangered sea turtle that spends most of its time in shallow lagoons and coral reefs where it feeds on sea sponges that grow quite a bit here. It can be easily distinguished from other sea turtles by its sharp, curving beak with prominent saw-like appearance of its shell margins.

2) Manta Ray
These are the largest rays in the world and can be broadly categorized into two sub-species, namely Reef Manta ray and Giant Oceanic Manta ray. These graceful gliders that sport massive proportions are gentle and pose little threat to divers.

3) Dugong
Locally known as the ‘lady of the sea’ and also known by other names such as the sea cow, sea camel and sea pig, the Dugong is the only strictly marine herbivorous mammal. The IUCN lists this species as vulnerable to extinction and hence it is quite a highlight if you see this sea grass eating marine mammal.

4) Hammerhead Shark
Fearsome looking hammerhead sharks often swim the waters near Layang Layang island, a deep sea atoll about 300 kms northwest of Kota Kinabalu. The specialty of the hammerhead sharks is its 360 degree vision that it enjoys because of the location of their eyes. Some of the Hammerhead species can be aggressive towards humans.

5) Barracuda
This tiger of the sea is known for its large size and fearsome appearance. They are elongated fish with pike-like appearance and prominent sharp-edged fang-like teeth, much like piranhas.They are voracious and opportunistic predators that rarely causes harm to humans.

Note: Photos in this post have been used with written consent from Beehive Communications on behalf of Tourism Malaysia.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Samburu National Reserve: An Oasis of Wildlife in Arid North Kenya

Remote, thinly inhabited and practically unknown to outsiders, Northern Kenya is one of Africa’s last great wilderness areas. While the Lake Turkana and the Chalbi desert are areas that even the locals have not visited, there lies a belt in Northern Kenya that is fiercely popular with locals and tourists alike.

A Baby Elephant protected by the larger ones
That stretch is the Samburu National Reserve that is situated near Isiolo and offers exceptional wildlife viewing. Samburu is an unfenced reserve that protects semiarid savannah land flanking the Ewaso Nyiro river. It’s ecology is defined by the contrasting habitats of riverine forest along the Ewaso Nyiro and austere acacia scrub and rocky slopes extending from it.

Milestone Marker at the entrance to Samburu National Reserve
This reserve along with the neighboring Buffalo Springs reserve (that is currently inaccessible due to a broken bridge) probably offers the best chance of sighting the leopard in Kenya, and lion, elephant and buffalo are also quite common. The main attraction, however, is a host of dry country specials absent or rare in most other East African parks.

Beautiful Vulturine Guineafowl flapping its wings
This includes mammals such as Beisa Oryx, Grevy’s Zebra and Gerenuk, and a long list of birds of which the cobalt-chested vulturine guinea fowl is the most spectacular. The star attraction is however the Grevy’s zebra, which is larger than the more widespread plains zebra and with a narrower stripe pattern. This endangered species is more or less endemic to North Kenya. I tried hard to spot this beautiful mammal, but luck was not on my side on those game drives.

Impala
The Samburu landscape is dominated by the Ewaso Nyiro river, a place around which most of the wildlife action happens especially with the elephants and the crocodiles. This river rises in the Aberdare mountains and arcs through the Laikipia plateau before eventually emptying into the expansive Lorian Swamp in Kenya’s remote northeast.

The Doum Palms such as this dot the Samburu landscape
Although it has been known to cease flowing in the dry years, the river is essentially perennial and its name, which means muddy water or brown water, refers to the rich red-brown top soil it carries down from Laikipia.

Kirk's Dik Dik - a very small antelope
Within the reserve, the river supports a lush ribbon of palm studded riparian forest that contrasts pleasingly with the surrounding aridity. The jeep tracks that run parallel to both the north and south banks offer the best wildlife sighting opportunities during game drives.

A cheetah resting in the shade at Samburu
Hippo and crocodile are resident and easily seen as are a host of water associated birds like fishing eagles, kingfishers and spoonbills. The riverine vegetation also attracts plenty of elephant and buffalo. The reticulated giraffe is also seen close by.

Leopard stares on into the woods
The other special area in Samburu National Reserve is the Ol Doinyo Koitogorr, a 4,100 feet high mountain that supports a tangled cover of dry thorn scrub dominated by stunted acacia trees. It is on these acacia trees that the buffalo weaver and the sparrow weavers build innumerable nests.

A large male olive baboon
Wildlife concentrations are lower away from the river, but one can spot some unique species here. Like the rubber-necked gerenuk that can be seen in family parties foraging on acacia canopies. The dik diks and larger antelopes such as the eland, impala, lesser kudu and Grant’s gazelle are also very visible.

Secretary Bird
This northern scrubland is especially rewarding for birders who are on the lookout for dry country birds such as vulturine guineafowl, yellow throated spurfowl, blue legged Somali ostrich, Egyptian vulture, golden pipit, golden-breasted starling, black capped social weaver, white-headed mousebird, Somali bee-eater, bristle-crowned starling and more.

It was so difficult to capture the full body of the giraffe in my long zoom lens. They are so huge!!
Personally, I loved the wildlife experience that Samburu offered to me during my 4 game drives here. In my mind, it is possibly the prettiest wildlife reserve in Kenya and the most interesting part of this forest is the rich abundance of birds in spite of most the terrain being semi arid.

Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill at Samburu National Reserve, North KenyaSeeing a rich haul of hornbills here was the main highlight. This is one place that you should try and add to your Kenya Wildlife itinerary that I am sure includes Maasai Mara, Amboseli, Nakuru and Tsavo.

The entrance gate to Samburu National Reserve in North Kenya
Distance from Nairobi: 400kms or 6-7 hours by road. Nanyuki can offer a short, yet entertaining pit stop.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Top 6 Malaysian Dishes

The interesting mix of Malay, Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisines gives the Malaysian dishes a heady flavor. It bears interesting resemblance and taste to a lot of Indian dishes, but maintains its own unique taste and presentation. Here the some top Malaysian foods that you should definitely taste:

Best Malaysian Foods
1) Roti Canai
This is a classic Malaysian breakfast that looks very much like the Indian Kerala Parantha (dough+egg+ghee). It tastes best with dal curry, egg masala or fish curry.

2) Satay
Meat lovers will say this is their Malaysian favourite. One can see its popularity through the umpteen number of hawkers selling this dish across the country. The meat is marinated with local spices and is identified by its peanut-based “sweet and slightly piquant sauce”.

3) Curry Laksa
The noodle soup laksa is one of Malaysia’s iconic dishes. The curry laksa consists of a coconut milk broth that is poured over noodles and garnished with tofu puffs, shrimp and eggs and of course a blend of the special Malaysian spices.

4) Beef Rendang
This is a slow cooked dry curry deeply spliced with ginger, turmeric, kaffir lime, chillies and coconut milk.

5)Nasi Lemak
Often called Malaysia’s national dish, Nasi Lemak is a rice dish steamed with coconut milk and served with fresh anchovies, peanuts, sliced cucumbers, hard boiled eggs and sambal. This is one of those dishes that is served at all times of the day.

6) Popiah
These are rolls of shredded veggies along with egg, tofu or peanuts. All of this is wrapped in a thin, pliant wheat crepe. Look very similar to our spring rolls.

Note: Photos in this post have been used with written consent from Beehive Communications on behalf of Tourism Malaysia.

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Maidenahalli–A great winter wildlife getaway from Bangalore

There are a lot of wildlife getaways from Bangalore, but most of them need the entire weekend, require bookings in advance and nearly always dent a big hole in your wallet. There is one place, which doesn’t fall into any of the above categories, but offers great quality and beauty.

Blackbucks begin their gallop with their customary leap
That place is Maidenahalli and it is home to the Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve. It is situated at about 160kms or 3 and a half hours from Bangalore. If you are a visiting tourist, you can base yourself at any of the large range of hotels in Bangalore that cater to a wide range of budgets from budget accommodation to five star hotels.

The Blackbuck of Maidenahalli
So, if you are a bird watcher, a wildlife enthusiast, a nature photographer, a simple tourist or a picnicking family, Maidenhalli has enough in it to keep you spell bound for the entire day. It’s blackbucks are the center of everyone’s attraction. During the winter mornings, you can either see the males sparring at each other or if lucky might get to see the mating ritual.

Indian Bushlark
Apart from the blackbucks, one can see a whole bunch of terrerstrial birds that include harriers, sandgrouses, bush larks and more. In fact, the grassland and the shrubland of Jayamangali ensures you can see a wide variety of birds if you are patient and sometimes really close to them.

Chestnut bellied sandgrouse (female)
The best part about Maidenahalli is the cheap entrance fees and the flexibility to explore the park’s tracks in your own vehicle and at your own pace. During noon time, you can rest in the shade next to the forest office and soak in the views from this high view point.

Montagu's Harrier (Male)
Apart from the wildlife extravaganza, you can also explore the Madhugiri fort and its colorful markets that are situated nearby. This place can be easily accessed from Bangalore and your Bangalore hotel should you be able to arrange a good day trip for you.

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