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Monday, January 16, 2017

Why you should travel more post demonetisation?

Demonetisation! This has been the buzzword in India for the last 2 months and it still continues to have good impact on the people of this country. This article is not about ‘Demonetisation’ in itself, but the impact it has had on the travel industry and how it has affected travelers like you and me. I made 3 trips post demonetisation, 1 family trip, 1 holiday and 1 work trip. During these trips, I did grapple with the demonetisation effect, but I also figured out that this was possibly the best time to be traveling, if you prepare and plan well. Well, these are the reasons why I suggest traveling more post the demonetisation era.

Why Travel More?

1) Easy to get Train Tickets

Attractive domestic Travel post Demonetisation

Even though Indian Railways has the largest rail network in the world, I have always found it difficult to get reservation tickets on the normal mode and not tatkal mode. However, post the demonetisation, things seem to be super different. I took 6 different trains (from premium to regular) during the peak Christmas – New Year holiday season and booked myself normal tickets on all of them. In fact, I was surprised to find tickets available on many classes on most trains. If you love train journeys in India, you will not find a better time to book your tickets.

2) Smaller Crowds

As a frequent traveler, I have to weave my way through crowds almost always and I don’t like it one wee bit. Nowadays, post the demonetisation, airports, train stations, bus stations and popular tourist attractions and destinations are seeing much smaller crowds. This means shorter queues at the airport and fewer people at the tourist destination. Personally, I am loving it. While everybody is sitting at home and mulling about the effect of demonetisation, this might be the best opportunity for you to enjoy quiet travels.

3) Raining Discounts


The entire hospitality industry has taken a beating post demonetisation. While the luxury hotels have seen the biggest drop in occupancy, even 3 star hotels have seen a 15 to 25% drop. This has led to hotels throwing in huge cash discounts or giving more freebies. Likewise with airlines, tour operators and travel agencies. This might be the time to get your travel bucket list into action as the load on your bank account will be the lowest.

4) Just Spend as a regular Tourist and do Social Service

The common man who survives on a cash economy suffered quite a bit post demonetisation. I am talking auto rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers, tour guides, street hawkers, small restaurants, trinket shops and many more. Even good, honest people saw tough days. As a traveler, we have the opportunity to avail their services and help alleviate some of their financial suffering. It is easier to go into a place that accepts digital money, but I would happily pay cash to add an ounce of joy to someone’s life. Social Service has never been easier.

5) Overcharging has come down

Overcharging is quite the norm in India’s tourist circles. I am sure all domestic travelers have experienced this at some time or the other. However, post the demonetisation effect, overcharging has reduced by leaps and bounds in the tourist circles. As a lot of people are struggling for steady cash based income, they have resorted to living a honest life and charging a fair fee. I saw and felt this almost everywhere right from auto and taxi drivers to souvenir shops, street hawkers and other people living on cash based income.

6) No Need to Break the Ice. Just utter the word demonetisation

Are you a shy person who doesn’t know how to break the ice? Well, all you have to do these days is utter the word ‘demonetisation’ and voila the conversation begins. Demonetisation is such a hot topic these days that everyone seems to be interested in it and want to say something about it. Whether you are in a plane, a train, a bus, a car, an auto rickshaw, in a restaurant or any public place, you are not too far away from a fun discussion. Such discussions are a great way to get closer to the local way of living and adds a special experience to your holiday.

How to Avoid Pain Points

1) Carry enough cash to last you the entire trip

I learnt this the hard way when I traveled to my village right after the demonetisation announcement and did not find a single working ATM for 5 days. On my next couple of trips, I did find working ATMs, but either the withdrawable amount was too low, the queues were too long or there was no money.

To take my money, I did not stand in queues at my bank as I find it atrocious to stand in queue to take out my hard earned money. Rather, I studied cash loading behaviors at ATMs near my home and withdrew cash when there were no people around.

Irrespective of the trick you opt for, do have enough cash in hand when you are traveling, especially if you are traveling deep into the country or into the rural side, which is still grappling with paucity of cash, unlike the larger cities where things have gotten better.

2) Foreign Travelers – Come Prepared with Enough Rupees

It is a shame that foreign travelers to India have to bear the brunt of India’s demonetisation. Newspapers carried articles where European tourists danced on the streets to pay for their food and boarding after finding it difficult to exchange their money or withdraw money from ATMs. I experienced this personally when my French friend who was traveling with me struggled to get her money exchanged. We went to the head office of State Bank of India in Jaipur to exchange her Euros and we were told that they were out of cash. Most of the ATMs we tried were out of cash. Airport forex counters had strict limits. And when we did manage to exchange the forex, we got poor exchange rates. Thankfully for my friend, I was carrying enough cash and hence we tided over the problems.

If you are a foreign national planning to travel in India, do keep enough Rupees with you in person and enough foreign currency to handle all kinds of emergencies. If you have a local friend, transfer money to their bank accounts and request them to withdraw cash for you. This will give you the best currency conversion rate. There are bank branches and ATMs specially assigned for foreign travelers. Keep track of them and you might not have to stand in long queues.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Amar Mahal: Regal Property to Explore Hidden Orchha

Hidden between two tourist attraction behemoths of Agra and Khajuraho is located a quiet village called Orchha. This tiny village of Orchha located on the banks of the Betwa river and bordering Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, is an amazingly well preserved Bundlekhand kingdom that possesses all the ingredients to blow your mind away. I see it as an off beat destination where the tourist or traveler can enjoy a bit of rural atmosphere, rich Bundlekhand history, 3 amazing temples, a stunning fort with its gorgeous palaces, see vultures and lots of birdlife and indulge in some rive rafting too.

View of the Orchha Chhatris (cenotaphs) from the terrace of Amar Mahal

This off beat destination has been on my bucket list for a long while and I finally got to experience it during the first two days of this new year.  While the detailed article on my overall Orchha experience will come pretty soon, this article is more about the review of Amar Mahal, the lovely hotel property where I stayed on this Orchha holiday.

1) Absolutely Stunning Location

Silhoutte of Orchha Cenotaph

Perched on a hill, the Amar Mahal hotel property is located right between the Orchha fort and the cenotaphs. What this means is that, you can catch that stunning sunrise or sunset over the cenotaphs right from the confines of your cozy room. Or even better from their rooftop with a hot cup of tea or coffee in hand.

Orchha Chhatris by the Betwa river, Madhya Pradesh

While it takes only 2 minutes by walk to reach the cenotaphs, the Raja Ram temple and the Orchha Fort is just about a 10 minute lazy walk and the Betwa riverside is may be just 4 minutes away. As you can see, Amar Mahal enjoys prime location. And since it is located away from the marketplace area, it is much quieter here all during the day and night.

2) Live like a King while exploring this hidden Bundlekhand Kingdom
Amar Mahal - luxury in hidden orchha, madhya pradesh

Amar Mahal, whose architecture mirrors that of a Rajput house of Bundlekhand, is a truly regal property with traditionally decorated luxurious rooms, an amazing spa and wellness center, an outdoor swimming pool and a kitchen that dishes out delicious local and international cuisine. It is perfect for families, couples and for everyone who loves to stay at luxurious properties.

Luxury palace property Amar Mahal in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

Given that Orchha is one of those places that enjoys cold winters and hot summers, such luxury really helps you rejuvenate after a long day exploring the sights. When I was here, it was quite cold and I thoroughly enjoyed their cozy warm rooms, hot showers, delicious food and very hospitable staff members.

Beauty lies everywhere in hidden Orchha

This is a place that allows you to relax in luxury amidst an amazing rustic atmosphere that is full of nature and history.

3) Great Customer Service

Foggy Orchha view

I always like a  property that shows warmth towards its visitors. The Amar Mahal staff are a very helpful, knowledgeable and hospitable bunch. They allowed me to connect to their private internet when their customer internet went down, they helped me deal with the fog situation and ensuing train delays and cancellations, guided me properly towards all the attractions and helped me usher in my new year in the happiest way possible.

The beautiful Amar Mahal property, Orchha

I am definitely going to return to Orchha as it is one destination that deserves more than the 2 days that I spent here. And I will definitely stay with Amar Mahal on my next trip and hopefully that time, I will get to enjoy the luxuries of the property a bit more. If you are planning a holiday to the hidden kingdom of Orchha, I would definitely recommend that you look up Amar Mahal, especially if you are traveling with your partner and/or family.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Portraits from Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

Happy Makar Sankranti/ Pongal / Bihu / Maghi/ Uttarayan / Khichdi to all you lovely people!

On this festival day, I bring to you some portraits and street moments from the amazingly gorgeous hidden village and yesteryear Bundlekhand kingdom of Orchha. I hope they add some color and joy to your festivities for they sure did blow my mind away when I was ushering in my new year.

All eyes on the phone - a sadhu baba and puppy moment, Orchha

All eyes glued on to the mobile phone! Italian, Sadhu baba and puppy!

Local market scene at Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

Local vegetable market right behind Raja Ram mandir. This is a great place for street action and people photography especially during the early morning hours when the light is good and the market is busy.

Orchha vegetable seller lady, Madhya Pradesh, India

A local vegetable seller from Orchha who is returning change to her customer.

A golgappa moment from Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

The famous Golgappa wala. One of my favourite all time street snacks and must experience in most north and east Indian villages.

The sadhu who got snapped while asking for money, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

This colourfully decked Sadhu baba spotted my big lens from a distance and from there itself he started asking for money. This shot captures precisely that moment.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Karni Mata Temple: World’s Only Rat Temple

Do you know a temple where rats are worshipped? Do you know a place where rats and humans are considered one and the same? Well, there exists a temple near Bikaner in Rajasthan where 20,000 or so rats live in a temple and who are fed fresh warm food and are worshipped by the people visiting this temple. And where rats are seen nibbling and running all around the temple. Sounds weird right? Well, such temples are really rare and it is not surprising that people from all over the world come to see it with their own eyes. I was no different and paid my first visit on my recent trip to Bikaner.

Karni Mata Temple - where rats are worshipped

Set deep in the Thar desert at a place called Deshnok lies Karni Mata Temple, aka Temple of Rats. ‘Karni Mata’, who lends her name to this temple was a simple girl child who was born into the Charan community of Rajasthan. Believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga, Karni Mata lived for as long as 150 years curing people and making miracles happen. People of the Jodhpur and Bikaner kingdoms worshipped her and she blessed them with peace, prosperity and good health.

Karni Mata Temple - the place where rats are worshipped

There are 2 legends surrounding this temple. The first legend has it that Karni Mata’s step son Laxman, drowned in a tank while attempting to drink water from it. Karni Mata requested Yama, the god of death to revive her son, but Yama refused as the boy had already taken a rebirth. But, after consistent pleading, Lord Yama relented and permitted Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats. The second legend has it that 20,000 members of an army deserted a nearby battle and came running to Deshnok. In those days, desertion meant death. However, Karni Mata spared their lives, turned them into rats and allowed them to stay in the temple. To show their gratitude, the soldiers (rats) pledged to serve Karni Mata.

Rats being fed hot bajra roti at Karni Mata Temple, Bikaner, Rajasthan

Keeping the legends aside, there are many current stories from the Karni Mata temple that boggle your mind. Like how the number of rats living in the temple does not go beyond 20,000. Or the fact that if a rat dies, a new birth occurs in the charan community some where and vice versa with death. However, there are no baby rats in the temple. Locals say that all are adult male rats. They also believe that white rats are the holy souls and if one gets to see them all their wishes will come true. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t sight a white rat.

Entrance to Karni Mata mandir, Bikaner, Rajasthan

While the Karni Mata temple took form sometime in the early 15th century, its current marble form with silver doors and Mughal architecture is from the early 20th century when it was built by Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. From the outside, the temple looks to be simple and like most of the Hindu temples of Rajasthan, but when I entered, I saw rats running all around. It takes a while to get used to the rats and their smell. Don’t be surprised if you jump from time to time as rats keep scurrying over and/or around you. It is actually considered auspicious if a rat runs over you. And even better if it eats the food offering brought by you. Locals also say that it is considered very lucky if you eat the food nibbled by the rats, but then, I would not recommend that. But, if you do step on a rat or if you end up killing a rat, you will have to offer a rat made out of gold or silver as a punishment.

Karni Mata Temple - the rat temple of India

It does feel weird to be visiting a temple where rats (that give you that creepy feeling) are scurrying all around you, but then, it is not every day that you see the world’s only rat temple. I would definitely recommend you to gather every ounce of courage and pay a visit during your next trip to Bikaner. It will be a special experience.

How to reach there: Deshnok is about 30 kilometers from Bikaner on the Bikaner – Jodhpur road. You could either hire a private car or take a public bus. Bikaner is the nearest railway station and Jodhpur will be the nearest airport.

When to go there: Late evening or early mornings are best to visit the temple as that is when you will see the rats at their busy self. Navaratri and festival days will be crowded, so you might want to avoid those.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Singapore - Debunking the Myths

If you speak to most people who have never been to the city state of Singapore, there are always the same clichés, stereotypes and half-truths that come out.  “It’s so expensive, you get thrown in jail for having chewing gum, and the HEAT!” The same people who trot these statements out will probably have trouble pointing to Singapore on a map, never mind being able to give valuable travel advice about the country. So yes, while there is an element of truth to some of these apocryphal tales, I feel it’s my duty to put the record straight, and let you know the truth about the Lion City.

Singapore Skyline

Is it Expensive?


Look at any top 10 most expensive cities in the world list and Singapore is going to be in it, usually in the top one or two places. The problem with these lists is that the factors that they are based on, are for those who live there, and include property prices and school fees. Singapore is a small island, and it houses the Asian headquarters for pretty much every company on the planet. Of course property prices – particularly near the CBD (central business district) are going to be steep. Plus, the number of expats in Singapore, many with families, means there are a large number of good international schools. This means the figures are always going to be skewed. Take those out, and you are left with a country that is still expensive in Asian terms but certainly not when it comes to comparisons with much of Europe and North America.

Singapore and food go hand in hand

Transport is clean and cheap, but the thing most people come to Singapore for is the food, and it not only boasts some of the best and most varied on the planet, it’s also some of the cheapest. The hawker centres – open air complexes housing many different food vendors - are an institution. You can pick up what could very well be one of the best meals you’ve ever had in your life for between S$2 and S$5.

Is it a Police State?


Singapore has practically no crime. There is never a time – no matter where you accidentally stray – where anyone, man or woman will feel uneasy, whatever time of night. You are also very unlikely to see any police on the streets. There are reasons for this, that are too long and drawn out to go into here, but a fairly draconian policy on crime and drugs in particular is certainly one of them. It is also untrue that gambling is illegal. There are some restrictions, but the island has several casinos, and though a $100 fee is charged for locals, tourists and non-Singaporean residents can enter for free, to play the multitude of slots or card tables round the clock.

Is There any Culture?


Hindu temples in Singapore

While it is true that Singapore is a relatively new country, and doesn’t have the cultural history of a lot of its neighbours, many of the locals have brought their own culture in from India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. The enclaves of China town, Little India and Kampong Glam are fascinating places to visit and dine out in, and the island also boasts some of the most renowned art galleries and museums in Asia if not the world.

Just How hot is it?


Sunset at Singapore's Sentosa Island

It is South East Asia, a stone’s throw from the equator, of course it’s going to be hot. It is in no way as hot as many of the surrounding countries however, mainly due to the fact it’s a small island, surrounded by water. And anyway, is all year round temperatures in the low to mid 30’s really a bad thing?

Note: The photographs in this article have been borrowed from wikimedia commons and each photograph has been linked to its host page on wikimedia commons site.

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Copyright © 2009-2017 Sankara Subramanian C (www.beontheroad.com)
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