July 2017 - Be On The Road | Live your Travel Dream!

Friday, July 28, 2017

7 Practical Tips to Create Captivating Travel Photos

The high village of Dhankar in scenic Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh, India

How do you create travel photos that are not only stunning, but are remarkable as well? It can be tricky to take photos that are both compelling and unique, especially when there are many other travellers who have already done the same shots.

There are a lot of articles out there which explain about photography techniques, so this article will give you a few tips on how to create extraordinary travel photos, focusing more on the practical aspects. From planning your trip to keeping your best work in a photobook after your travel, here’s what you can do to create captivating imageries.

1. Embrace the unexpected

The spotted leopard look, Tadoba Tiger Reserve, India

There are times when things don’t go well, no matter how carefully you craft your plans. Thick clouds that cover what would otherwise be a stunning sky full of stars, a group of tourist coming earlier than you and ruining your hope of getting good shots of Milan Cathedral, are just a few examples of how things might not go plan. Instead of feeling disheartened at the thought of losing an opportunity to create magnificent shots, why not embrace the surprises and capture them? The tourists in front of the monument can be the human elements that you need to add a sense of scale to your photo. A sudden fog that covers the mountain can be beautiful in its own way. When unexpected things happen, don’t pack up your camera and leave, but keep shooting as the scene unravels. Sometimes, the best photo comes from the unexpected circumstances.

2. Beat the crowd

Taking photos without people in the background can be extremely frustrating, especially in the famous tourist destinations. Sometimes, human elements can add more to the photos, by adding to the sense of scale and feel to the scene. But often, we want photos clean from the crowd to really show the grandeur of a place.

To achieve this, you need to beat the crowd by getting there early, or late when the crowd is already thinning. It takes more effort and it can be exhausting, but it’s really worth it. You can plan your schedule to accommodate this. When you get up early and stay out late to get good shots, you’ll probably need a rest some time in the day, and you can do this in the midday when the sun is too bright, as taking photos during this time wouldn’t give you the best results anyway.

3. Make the most of the golden hours

Sunset at Tangtse

Every photographer relies on golden hours, so plan your itinerary accordingly. Do your research beforehand to prioritise the places that would need to be photographed during the golden hours, or more specifically, during sunrise or sunset. As the golden hours are fleeting, plan the locations/spots to take photos as well, so you can use your time more effectively once you’re there (a tip: use Google Earth when planning this to give you a better idea of the place, and also to spot potential viewpoints).

4. Find unique angles and perspectives

Young Monk looks skywards during Hemis Monastery Festival, Ladakh

How many people take the images of the Eiffel Tower from the front, or the images of Inari Shrine and its thousand gates with someone on the foreground? People tend to replicate what they see, and while they might produce decent images, these images wouldn’t be unique and remarkable to the audience, as they’ve seen many photos with similar views from similar angles before. Step further ahead and be different. Take your time to explore your surroundings and find the angles that are unusual. This way, your images will stand a chance of standing out.

Of course, there are times when this is easier said than done, especially when the destination is quite popular with fellow travellers. If this is the case, prepare to add something distinguishing to your photos. Jorge Saenz brought the highlight to his work by putting in dinosaur toys in his images. Drawing inspirations from Saenz, you can bring an action figure as your travel companion and put him in your travel photos. This is only an example though. Any unique object that helps tell the stories will also bring depth to your images and storytelling.

5. Tell a story with your photo

Tribal Kids, Mishing village, Panbari, Assam, India

Photography is a form of art, and it goes deeper than just how it looks. It is images that have stories that will stuck in people’s mind, even better if it evokes emotions. Whether it’s a story about the life of people in Gorem, or a story behind the photo of Glencoe landscape, make sure that your photo has something more to offer than just the face value.

6. Travel with the camera that you’re most comfortable with

Sometimes we feel the pressure to bring a better, ‘more serious’ camera to create amazing shots. But the truth is, it’s not about the gear. What’s important is that you know your camera and its features, and feel comfortable with it. Whether you shoot with a DSLR, mirror less, or phone camera, it’s you who creates great images. Don’t be trapped into thinking that your gear defines how good your photos will be.

7. Keep a travel photo book and learn from it

Your best photos deserve to be seen and appreciated by other people, so don’t keep them hidden on your computer! Choose the images that are visually stunning and tell stories, and keep them in a photobook. When you look through your photos and sort them, try to see the areas that need improvement. Ask feedback from people as well, especially photographers. There’s always a room to improve, and having someone experienced to give you a constructive criticism can be invaluable.

Picturesque Himalayas and the Spiti Valley as seen from Ki Monastery

Hopefully these practical tips can help you plan your travel to create outstanding and captivating photos, but don’t forget to also master the techniques, practice, and more importantly, have fun travelling!

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Homestead B&B: Fantastic Bed and Breakfast Property in Shillong, Meghalaya

Enjoying the monsoons in Meghalaya

Any trip to Meghalaya usually means that you stay a night or two at Shillong, the cleanest and one of the prettier hill stations of India. On my recent monsoon holiday to Meghalaya’s living root bridges, I too stayed at Shillong on my way in. But, this time around I did not stay at a hotel in the touristy Police bazaar, but opted for a room in a nice home called Homestead B&B, that I booked on AirBnB. This review is based on this recent experience of mine.

1) The property ‘Homestead B&B’ is a large home with newly constructed rooms on the top floor as well as rooms in a classic looking cottage. All of this is surrounded by gardens and pear trees. The rooms are cosy, comfortable with modern amenities like running hot water, free-wi-fi, satellite television, etc. The rooms are typically priced from INR 2700 per night. You can see all details either on Trip Advisor or on AirBnB.

2) The place is located right opposite St. Anthony’s college and hence enjoys prime location. From here, it is a short walk to Police bazaar, other markets and important landmarks. Even many restaurants, shops and ATMs are located real close by.

3) The lady Maria who runs this place and the other two ladies who help her with the day to day management are forever smiling and shower a lot of Meghalayan hospitality on you. Be it offering you a free cup of tea while you chat with them, helping fix small issues with the room or even giving you guidance and tips to make your Meghalaya holiday experience better, they are always there for you.

4) Simple and Wholesome Indian/Continental breakfast is included in the room tariff and is served in the open area right outside of the rooms. For lunch and dinner, you can either eat outside or the owner can order it from a nearby restaurant for you.

5) One of the perks of this home is its roof-top, which not only offers privacy from the rest of the home, but offers a great view, especially during rains when it is perfect to grab a chair and enjoy the rains with a cup of piping hot tea in your hand.

6) Free wi-fi access is available in the room and common areas.

7) As the property has many rooms available, they are ideal for many groups of couples, a large family or a large group of friends traveling together.

If you are looking for a comfortable stay option in the heart of Shillong and one that is priced reasonable, I would recommend taking a look at Homestead B&B. As of now, you can only book them through AirBnB or may be through their Facebook page too.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Highlights Of A Trip To Colombia

Stunning island beaches of Colombia

Colombia can get a bad rap when it comes to South American tourism. Because of the country’s history in drug trafficking and spikes in kidnappings some 20 years ago, many perceive it as dangerous. The truth is that Colombia has come a long way since its most dangerous days. It’s still important to exercise caution and stay in safer areas if you visit, but as one article put it, you’re more likely to be eaten by a shark in Australia than you are to be kidnapped in Bogota!

So why would you want to visit in the first place? Many international travelers have only the faintest idea of what to expect in this lush South American country, because the aforementioned drug trafficking history tends to dominate our perception. Here are some of the highlights you might look to enjoy if you get the chance to visit.

Relax In Cartagena

Sunset view of Cartagena, Colombia

Bogota is the most famous city in Colombia, probably the most modern and also the capital. Medellin is also among the most famous cities, as a former hub for drug cartels (and the city used as a title for the fictional Pablo Escobar movie that dominated much of the popular TV show Entourage. But Cartagena may be the most appealing urban area for tourists who want to relax and soak up some Colombian culture.

Thanks in large part to the Old Town and some ancient castles you can still tour, Cartagena is designated as a world heritage city. There’s plenty to see and do, but for pure relaxation you won’t find a better city in the country, or really much of South America. Playa Blanca is one of the best beaches in the nation, and can be easily reached by boat from the city (it’s on Baru Island). Within the city there are plenty of quaint, enjoyable cafés to sit at as you sip coffee and try some of the local food. It’s a wonderful place to spend a few days with some friends or someone you love.

Tour Coffee Farms
Stunning Landscape of Colombia

This is an activity best suited for those who happen to love coffee. But just as you might want to tour vineyards in Napa Valley or certain places in France and Italy, Colombia is the place to get a feel for where some of the world’s best coffee is made. You can see the fields that produce coffee berries, speak to the people who run the farms, and usually find yourself some pretty incredible brew in the process. It’s a fascinating experience for anyone visiting Colombia, but if you happen to be a coffee lover it’s something you should definitely have on your list.

Visit Sugamuxi

Sunset on the Amazon - Colombia

This is a province within Colombia that's appealing in its natural beauty, but it’s also home to the Muisca, The Muisca are an indigenous people that still have descendants and traditions alive in the area today, and if you like diving into cultural experiences, you can experience some of their ways of life. Most interesting of all is that you might learn something about how ancient Muisca rituals sparked rumors of the golden New World city of El Dorado.

Today, we know El Dorado as the legend that has been used to inspire many fantastic adventures. There was an animated film about the quest for the city years ago, and now a video game about El Dorado is featured in a collection of slot games online. It's called “Gonzo’s Quest,” and it consists of a slot arcade based around an animated conquistador’s search for a gilded metropolis. It’s all good and playful fun, but back in the age of exploration, El Dorado was a very real concept to a lot of people. One explanation for the legend is that elaborate Muisca rituals involving lots of gold ornamentation led to stories about a city of gold. Of course there is no such city (unless the Muisca have hidden it extraordinarily well!), but you may learn some about the legend.

Explore Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Colombia is home to some wild and beautiful forests, and Tayrona National Park may be the best of them. It’s a large area in the northern part of the country right up against the Atlantic coast, and it has a a bit of everything. There are foothills, stretches of rainforest, all kinds of interesting animals (including monkeys), and ocean lagoons where you’re free to swim. Not all of the swimming spots are safe, but you can usually find guidance or signs indicating where it’s okay to get into the (extremely alluring) water. A hike through this park is an outstanding way to rope some adventure into your vacation.

Take A Mud Bath

Totumo Mud Volcano - Colombia

That’s right—this is a real attraction in Colombia. And it’s one that a lot of tourists wind up enjoying immensely. That’s in part because the mud baths happen to be in the caldera (a sort of crater-like depression) of a miniature volcano. Pointing it out as an unusual thing to do in the country, Atlas Obscura called the area a 15-foot diameter lukewarm vat of greyish brown silt the consistency of a thick cream soup. That might not sound like the most appealing place you’ll ever visit but imagine the full picture. It’s 45 minutes outside of Cartagena, on top of what appears to be a medium-sized hill but is actually an active volcano. You reach the top by climbing a few stairs, and find a bath of naturally heated mud. It’s definitely bizarre, but it’s a fun idea to put on your list. The locals even say it’s therapeutic!

Note: The photographs have been borrowed from wikipedia.org under the Creative Commons License. Each photograph has been linked to its respective page on wikipedia.org.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Monsoon Holiday to Meghalaya’s Living Root Bridges

The living root bridges of Meghalaya - one of the best monsoon holiday destinations of India

What better way to spend your monsoon holiday than in the state that is called as the ‘land of the clouds’ and in the wettest region in the world? You got it right! I am referring to Meghalaya’s Cherrapunji region where rains don’t take a break for three months and where clouds merge one with the land.

Nongriat village, clouds, dense greenery and monsoons - a perfect way to rejuvenate your tired body and soul

While nearly everyone knows about Cherrapunjee region’s iconic status as the wettest region in the world, not all know about the ancient Khasi tradition of building bridges from roots of trees. Or may be, many know due to the sheer publicity that this place receives these days. :-)

The Nongthymmai living root bridge sturdy as concrete, Meghalaya

In case you wish to know the story…The families of Khasi tribes have passed on traditional bridge architecture knowledge down their family tree for generations. This knowledge teaches them to use the roots of the rubber tree and train them to entwine into strong bridges over a period of many years. Usually, these bridges connect remote Khasi tribal villages and should allow free movement of people and goods all round the year. As a thumb rule, locals identify places where native rubber trees are present on either bank of the fast flowing, but narrow mountain river. They then, try and direct the roots of these rubber trees towards each other. What follows next is a wait of many years where these living roots are directed like climbers till they form sturdy bridges that can easily carry 20 to 40 people with loads on their backs.

A drive in the clouds at Cherrapunji, Meghalaya

Having stood on these bridges over two separate trips, I can easily vouch that they are way stronger than steel rope bridges, feel more safe and definitely feel sturdier. And the best part is that these bridges are still growing, which means that they potentially will last a very long time with minimal wear, tear and maintenance. And, because these well trodden bridges are akin to national highways for these villages, they don’t gather moss or turn slippery even during the heaviest of rains. Now, that is truly eco friendly bridge architecture, a treat to the eye, a photographer’s delight and an adventurer’s thrill.

The longest living root bridge at Nongthymmai village, Meghalaya

As far as I know, there are close to 36 such living root bridges in this region of Meghalaya, each providing access to different Khasi villages. In addition to these 36 fully operational living root bridges, there are many more that are under construction. Some of these bridges are small, while some of them are as long as 100 feet, but the one that takes the cake is the double decker living root bridge at Nongriat village.

Rain and colorful umbrellas at Nongthymmai village, Meghalaya

If you are planning on experiencing the iconic living root bridges of Meghalaya, you should definitely plan to see the double decker one at Nongriat. While each of these living root bridges look beautiful, the one to Nongriat requires you to climb down close to 3000 stone steps, cross two swaying steel rope bridges over raging mountain rivers and white water, cross a small living root bridge, walk through tiny remote villages and walk through pristine lush green vegetation that is a high in itself.

Action packed hike across swaying steel rope bridges to Nongriat village, Meghalaya

During the monsoons, the rains are omnipresent, the rivers are roaring and nature is at its prettiest best! This is possibly the best time to see these living root bridges of Meghalaya in Technicolor. Even though this was my third trip to Meghalaya and the 2nd trip to the living root bridges, this was my first trip during the monsoons and I have to say that I enjoyed every bit of exploring these tiny hamlets in persistent rains.

The land of the clouds that is called Meghalaya

From the time you start at the church in Tyrna village where the descent to Nongriat begins to the time you are actually walking on the double decker bridge, you will take anywhere between 60 and 120 minutes one way. Add 30 to 60 minutes extra for the detour to the longest (100 feet long) living root bridge at Nongthymmai, 30 to 60 minutes extra for photography and 30 to 90 minutes more for breaks. It is the steep climb on the way back that will make your quadriceps groan and your heart pound, but when walking towards the village, do not think about this climb, but soak in the view of the wild orchids, flowers and bountiful nature, revel in the adventure of crossing high steel rope bridges that can sway sideways from time to time and just simply enjoy walking in the rains.

The iconic double decker living root bridges of Nongriat, Meghalaya

Once you reach Nongriat, do take a dip in the stream under the double decker bridge and if you have some gas left in the tank, head further to the Rainbow falls and swim in its gorgeous pools. On your way back, chomp into some hot piping maggi noodles or omelette and wash it down with a hot cup of tea. The pace of life is slow here and it feels like your life force is rejuvenating itself even though you have just spent oodles of energy climbing up and down the steep trails to this village. And that is why a lot of people stay back in this village and spend a good part of their holiday in pristine remoteness.

Nongriat village tucked under dense rainforests, Meghalaya

In addition to Nongriat, there are other living root bridges nearby such as the ones at Umkar, Umunoi and Laitkynsew that you can explore and experience in this region. And while you are enjoying these adventures in Meghalaya’s living root bridge villages, do spend some time conversing with locals and learning about their unique Khasi cultures and traditions. In simple words, make it a monsoon holiday like no other!

The steep 3000 plus steps that lead one to Nongriat village and the living root bridges of Meghalaya

Remember this golden piece of advice
…even if people scare you about the climb down and up to the double decker living root bridge of Nongriat, do try to experience these living root bridges as they are really some sight and definitely doable even for the person with basic fitness levels. The trail is not slippery, there are hand rails to take support, wooden staff available on rent and guides available to help you in case of any trouble.

If there is one monsoon holiday that I have to recommend, it has to be the living root bridges of Meghalaya! I hope you get to live it this year or in the years to come. I have laid out a small guide and some handy tips below to help you with your overall planning. 

What other attractions can I see:

A closer look at the green village called Nongriat, Meghalaya

Apart from the iconic living root bridges, one can indulge in a lot of water based activities, but considering the heavy flow of water, watersports are usually not recommended in the monsoons. Instead, one can indulge in the umpteen sightseeing options present nearby.

1) Noh Kalikai Falls – one of the tallest single plunge waterfalls in India. If you feel adventurous, you can trek all the way down to the bottom of the waterfalls

2) Thangkharang Park – for its canyons and waterfall views

3) Mawsmai cave – for the eerie stalactites and stalagmites

4) Mawlynnong – for Asia’s cleanest village

5) Dawki – for views of Bangladesh’ flood plains

6) Laitkynsew – for a traditional Khasi village exploration

7) Many other view points, but again that depends on your luck as most view points will be enveloped in thick cloud cover or mist.

Where to Stay:

Bangladesh flood plains as seen from Latikynsew village, Meghalaya

If the living root bridges are specifically on your agenda, you should either stay in Nongriat village or somewhere near by. But, do remember that, the only way for you and your luggage to reach Nongriat is by foot. You can hire porters to carry your luggage, but do plan for that well in advance with the homestay/guest house that you are staying with. Nongriat’s Serene Homestay comes heavily recommended by fellow travelers, though I did not stay there. The village is a great place to stay if pristine nature is your thing, but do remember that facilities will be basic.

If you do not wish to stay in Nongriat, but still wish to be in close proximity to all the living root bridges, plan to stay at the Cherrapunjee holiday resort at Laitkynsew village. This comfortable property, located amidst pristine views is easily accessible to close to 8 living root bridges, either by foot or at max a 10 minute drive by car. I stayed at this property for 5 days and made many day trips to different living root bridges, Khasi villages and view points. And at the end of my physically tiring day, I returned to a warm room, running hot water and delicious food.

If you seek luxury, stay in and around the Cherrapunjee area. But, to reach the living root bridges, make sure you start your day a bit early and keep a car with you at all times as all living root bridges are at least an hour away from Cherrapunjee.

How to reach here:

Waterfalls galore at Latikynsew, Meghalaya

Shillong is the closest airport, though a lot of people prefer Guwahati due to lower fares. If only Meghalaya is on your itinerary, I would recommend flying into Shillong rather than Guwahati. This will help you avoid Guwahati traffic, Shillong traffic and the drive from Guwahati to Shillong on both your way in and out.

From Shillong, one can easily find taxis and shared taxis to Cherrapunji. A shared taxi costs about 80 rupees per person. The journey takes about 2 hours, but the vehicle leaves only when it is full. If you wish to hire a full vehicle such as a Maruti Alto, it will cost you INR 600 rupees to Cherrapunjee and INR 1200 up until Tyrna village from where the trek to Nongriat begins. You can also negotiate in case you wish to do some sightseeing stops enroute. These Shillong taxi drivers are much cheaper than hiring a car full time, unless you plan to drive it.

Hire a full vehicle only if you plan on seeing many places and are on a very short trip. If not, it is economical to hire a vehicle when needed. A lot of local taxis are available at your beck and call and all rates are fixed. Plus, this also gives you the excuse to walk more.

Handy Packing Tips:

A game of football surrounded by nature's bounty at Latikynsew, Meghalaya

If you are visiting Meghalaya during the monsoons, do expect very heavy to extremely heavy rains. An umbrella becomes a necessity and will come in handy almost always, though it can be a bit tricky to use while crossing steep rope bridges and on slippery surfaces. Raincoats and waterproof jackets are also nice, but due to the high humidity, I would not recommend that. Even though you will be hiking and walking a lot, I would not recommend wearing boots. Instead, I would recommend waterproof sandals or quick drying shoes. Personally, I walked with flip flops and honestly, I was very happy with my choice. As clothes do not air dry at all, don’t bother with thick cottons or any heavy material. Rather, wear those kind of clothes that dry super quick. Evenings and early mornings can get nippy from time to time. Hence, carry a light jacket or jumper to keep you warm when you are in a dry environment. You don’t need any warm wear during the hike.

What to bring back home as Souvenirs:

Wild forest honey of this region is a specialty. So are turmeric and bay leaves. I have bought them and can hence can personally vouch for its supreme quality. The honey is so good that I am kicking myself for not buying some more. Local weaves are also very popular, especially the traditional tribal designs. And while you are there, do chomp on some uber juicy and delicious pineapples and plums as they come in season during the rains.

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Hotel Tea County: Modern Comfortable Hotel in Dibrugarh, Assam

Tea estates of Dibrugarh where you find the best Assam tea

In one of my recent posts, I mentioned how Dibrugarh is a great base for your holiday to India’s far north east. If you have taken my advice and are looking for a comfortable place to make your pad in Dibrugarh, you can take a look at Hotel Tea County, a modern 3 star business styled hotel located enroute from the railway station to the markets and the Brahmaputra river bank. This hotel review is based on my recent experience of staying with them.

1) As a newly launched property, everything about this hotel appeals to the eye. The entire property and rooms smell fresh and clean. This is something rare to find in the other hotel properties of humid and sultry Dibrugarh.

2) The property is located right next to a tea garden, which means that a walk in the tea garden is possible any time of the day and may be even straight about your morning cup of tea. Another aspect about the location that I like is that while the hotel is located in a quiet lane of the city, it is just a short walk away from the hullaboo of the local markets and the riverside, which means that you are never too far away from the action.

3) The hotel rooms are spacious and comes with all typical modern day facilities, like running hot water, air conditioning, satellite television, hot water kettle, etc.. Most rooms face a tea garden, and you can specifically request for one.

4) Simple, wholesome meals are served at the hotel. Breakfast is included in the room tariff and is served buffet style at the restaurant downstairs. There are also many cafes, restaurants and sweet meat shops in case you wish to try out something different.

5) The hotel reception, chef and other staff are extremely helpful and always eager to be of service.

6) The hotel has a sky bar on the roof top that offers great views of the lush green cityscape. This is a perfect place to head to after a long day either exploring the city or in office.

7) The hotel offers free wi-fi and connectivity is pretty good as I received decent speeds even in my corner room.

If you are looking for a modern comfortable hotel in Dibrugarh that falls in the mid-range category, I would ask you to take a look at Hotel Tea County. A tea garden view and easy access is just an added bonus.

Note: Hotels in Dibrugarh are usually more expensive than the rest of the country for the same amenities and standards.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Backpacking, cheapest locations

Cheapest Countries for Backpacking

Backpacking is one of the most liberating ways to travel around the world. Being able to walk, bus or hitchhike, staying under canvas or in cheap rooms and trekking to beautiful sites while avoiding the tourist traps are great ways to see the ‘real’ countries. Trying to backpack on a budget needs some careful planning – you need cheap food, economical accommodation, access to low-priced public transport and some cash to visit special attractions.

1. Malawi

Malawi - A cheap destination for African Wildlife

The Republic of Malawi – to give it its full name – is a landlocked country in the southeast of Africa. It’s bordered mainly by Mozambique to the east, south and west, Zambia to the northwest and Tanzania to the northeast.

We would be looking at a daily cost of $20 due to a very favourable exchange rate and a negligible tourist industry. Accommodation-wise you will be able to find a bed for under $3, and a decent, locally-sourced meal will set you back less than $2. Public transport is cheap and cheerful, if not a little hair-raising.

For outdoor activity you can try your hand at water-skiing on Lake Malawi for a fraction of the cost of a similar experience at more well-known resorts. Cape Maclear is a beautiful backpacker’s destination where you can enjoy swimming and diving in the crystal-clear waters or sunbathe on the beach. Malawi is a relatively small country and you can easily trek through the entire length of the country in a day or two. The safari trail is a big attraction – elephant-spotting being a popular draw. The views from the mountainous areas are spectacular and watching the sun setting over the amazing vista as you prepare to bed down for the night is pretty special.

The capital city of Lilongwe has extensive markets and you will be hard-pressed not to buy a few bargains.

The people are typically welcoming and friendly – keen to be good hosts and continue to earn their reputation as the ‘warm heart of Africa’.

Be sure to have a good travel insurance policy as Malawi is a known malarial region. If you are travelling for more than 3 weeks look at a dedicated backpacking policy. We recommend not to swim in Lake Malawi (as many do) due to the number of water based parasites which can causes diseases like bilharzia.

2. Turkey

A Blue Mosque Skyscape, Istanbul, Turkey

The eastern border of Europe gives you the chance to experience standards that Westerners are used to but at prices more typical of Eastern countries. For a little over $30 a day you will be able to pick up some remarkable memories as you travel around enjoying fabulous fare, culture and scenery.

Accommodation will set you back around ten bucks in a hostel in the capital city of Ankara. Other cities will give you the same standard of lodging for around half this price. The southwest coast is expensive and touristy and not good for a budget-conscious traveler. Heading east will get you rooms that come with breakfast and lunch included too for around $30. And, indeed, it’s the eastern side of Turkey that is the real joy for budget backpackers.

The price of public transport is remarkably cheap and for around $15 you can get a good standard of bus service across the country. As you head east, the culture becomes distinctly Middle Eastern as the influence of migrant Kurds exerts its friendly influence. You can get very tasty meals for just over $4 – a real bargain!

Turkey has some amazing ruins and historical attractions – it’s seen many cultures come and go and is constantly evolving. Explore the ghost city of Ani on the Armenian border and travel to the Gobeklitepe Temple where this amazing structure is still being painstakingly unearthed and revealed!

3. Ethiopia

Smiling eyes, Ethiopia

To the south on the Horn of Africa lies Ethiopia, the most populous landlocked country in the world with over one million souls living here. Backpacking around the country will set you back just over $12 a day. Depending on your comfort requirements a bed for the night can cost as little as $3 but, for a few dollars more, you can enjoy a few more frills. If you avoid the tourist areas and head to the authentic streets you will be able to eat healthily for less than a $1 a meal. You would expect to pay up to $2 for a meal in a restaurant so either option is still a good price. If you enjoy your coffee you must take every opportunity to sample it here, Ethiopia started the world’s coffee addiction and it now accounts for over half their foreign trade and employs more than 10% of its citizens. Oh and for a fraction over 10 cents a cup you can’t go wrong.

Travelling by bus works out at about a dollar per hour heading between cities. These are typically very crowded and hot though but if you go opt for a higher class of bus at around $3 per hour you will have more space, comfort and welcome air conditioning!

Some of the best places to visit are the temples at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Aksum. For five bucks you can search through the chapels that reputedly house the Ark of the Covenant. Aksum dates back over 4,000 years and, according to tradition was where the Queen of Sheba met with King Solomon.

4. Nepal

Sadhu at Pashupatinath temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Our last choice is a perennial favorite of the budget backpacker. An adventure through Nepal can cost as little as $14 per day. Despite the earthquake two years ago, Nepal is recovering and is very welcoming to visitors.

Hitchhiking is popular and commonplace in areas like Jomsom, there is a strong sense of community and the willingness to help each other out is humbling. Public transport is mainly provided by modern minibuses that have air conditioning. A public transport pass costs only $12.

Food is inexpensive; a restaurant meal comes in at under $2 and if you shop in the local markets you will eat well for $1.

Some of the best sites in Nepal are free, the awe-inspiring World Peace Pagoda (Nepal is home to two of the world’s 80 Peace Pagodas) south of Phewa Lake in Pokhara. The snow-capped mountains of the Annapurna Range are beautiful and you can easily spend a day hiking around the circuit of the Annapurna Conservation Area.

Note: The first four pictures in this post have been re-used under the Creative Commons License.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Vegetarian Assamese Meal: Must Taste on your next holiday to Assam

Traditional Assamese cuisine - deliciousness overload

One of the perks of living and traveling in India are the abundant opportunities available to dip into lip smacking vegetarian meals and dishes all across the country. Such are the number of options that not only do we vegetarians get all our protein and calorie requirements, but we end up gliding way up the food ladder to heaven and a good many times end up gaining some weight too. This perk holds good for the north eastern states too, especially the state of Assam, which in spite of being a heavy fish eating state, serves some fantastic vegetarian Assamese cuisine.

Delicious plate of Assamese Thali, Sibsagar, Assam, India

I have always had a soft corner for Assamese food as the local food has almost always delighted my senses. A typical Assamese vegetarian thali or meal would include:

1) Local white or red rice (depending on season and region)

2) Bhoot Jhukoliya (Ghost Chillis – the hottest chilli in the world) - handle with extreme care

3) Aloo and Baingan Pitika (Steamed and salted Potato and Eggplant)

4) Dhekiya or Lye saag depending on season

5) Aloo, Aloo Potol, Cabbage, Beetroot or any other vegetable in season Bhaaji (Assorted Vegetables)

Delicious Assamese meals at Mishing tribal homes

6) Yellow or Black Masoor Dal (Thick Lentil Soup)

7) Khoreo (Highly pungent and delicious ground mustard served with onion, garlic and other spices)

8) Pudina, Coconut, Sesame Chutney (Mint, Coconut or Sesame paste prepared with herbs and spices)

9) Salad made out of young bamboo shoots (If you eat with local tribes, these bamboo shoots will be usually the wild one that grows in the nearby forest)

10) Paste made from raw mangoes or ground jackfruit seeds

Rice beer and Chang ghar dining - Mishing tribal village, Assam

11) And finally some rice beer for the alcohol lovers and some rice kheer (sweet dish made from rice and condensed milk) for the dessert lovers

Depending on the season, there could be other dishes on your plate. And if there is a local festival like Bihu, be prepared to be totally spoilt for choice. The food is wholesome, unbelievably tasty and available all through the state. I would totally recommend tasting them on your next holiday to Assam.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Dibrugarh: Laid back in the Far North East of India

The brahmaputra river, colorful cycle rickshaws and cloud laden hills of Arunachal Pradesh all in one way at the riverside of Dibrugarh, Assam, India

Some call it the tea capital of India. Some refer to it as the economic hub in the north east. Located by the mighty Brahmaputra river, Dibrugarh in India’s far North East is a centre of action when it comes to oil and natural gas, tea, power generation, fertilizer, cottage industry and information technology. But, when I visited this city recently, all I saw was a lush green laid back city where lanes weave in and out of tea gardens. And that’s not it. I saw a very clean cobbled path by the banks of the Brahmaputra river, a super active and thriving local bazaar where you one can buy everything from traditional to modern goods, delicious food, many universities and of course plenty of rain.

Tea estates of Dibrugarh where you find the best Assam tea

One of the main reasons to visit this region is for its tea tourism. After all, nothing beats the charm of staying in a colonial bungalow within a tea garden and being cut off from the fast paced world out there. Well connected Dibrugarh (air, road and rail) and the newly opened bridge over the Brahmaputra means that it is possibly one of the best bases to explore the unique cultures of Central and Eastern Arunachal Pradesh. And then there are the rainforests of Eastern Assam, the historical city of Sibsagar (home to the erstwhile powerhouse Ahom kingdom) and even an easy getaway to the rest of the North Eastern states starting with Nagaland. In simple words, it is a great gateway to some of the best attractions of India’s far North East.

Elderly lady looks on at the market action of Dibrugarh, Assam, India

Even though I am fairly well traveled in India, I had somehow managed to give Dibrugarh a miss all these years. But, this monsoons when I took India’s longest train ride, the Vivek Express, I crossed acres and acres of tea gardens, forests and rivers to reach the magical tea land of Dibrugarh. I only stayed here for a couple of days and hence did not get to see a lot, but of what I managed to see here, I figured out that the city of Dibrugarh is built in and around tea estates, that the mighty Brahmaputra river calmly flows by the old city, that the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh are visible from most of Dibrugarh, that the tea here is legendary, that the bazaars here pack a serious punch when it comes to street food and that life here moves at its own easy pace. I didn’t go to Arunachal from Dibrugarh. Instead, moved west to the Ahom kingdom of Sibsagar, but before leaving I had mentally decided that I would definitely visit this laid back city soon and explore more of the forests in and around this region and may be move further east into Namdapha national park and the rest of Eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Dibrugarh…till we meet again…

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Handy Tips to De-Stress your next Family Holiday

Handy tips to destress your next family holiday

Traveling is a lot of fun, opens new perspectives in one’s personality and provides an immense learning experience for all, especially more so for young children. I am sure families are very aware of the positive impact of travel, but are equally scared of the stress that it brings into their lives. This stress ends up either screwing your entire holiday or ends up blowing the finances out of proportion. The below tips and tricks will not only de-stress the entire trip planning and preparation process, but will help you enjoy your family holiday like the way you deserve to.

Holiday Planning

1) Travel Insurance

Flight delays, lost baggage, medical emergencies, et al, can be faced during your family holiday and can cause serious headaches for your entire family if you are not prepared. It is a good practice to know whether your overseas travel insurance plan covers all such contingencies, especially urgent medical help or hospitalization. If not, it is prudent to get a travel insurance plan that works for you and your family.

2) Packing and First Aid Kit

Packing becomes a chore when you are traveling with your family. Either you end up missing some things or you end up lugging the kitchen sink with you. The best way to deal with this is to let your kids pack all their day to day things, while you pack the critical ones like passports, tickets, credit cards, forex, first aid kit, etc. In terms of actual luggage, I would recommend spinning trolleys, a small daypack for valuables and critical essentials and if you have a young baby with you, carry a bag with all baby essentials.

Regarding the actual content of the luggage, look up the weather and plan accordingly. Involve your kids with the weather updates so that they get excited too about their holiday.

3) Attempt to Travel Beyond the Usual

The thing that I have noticed with most traveling families is that they seem to follow a template when it comes to family holiday destinations. While well beaten destinations are safe, there is a whole world out there that also possesses all the ingredients to be a fabulous family destination. With a little bit of planning and some external help, the world is literally your oyster and I mean for your entire family.

4) Involve your Kids in the Planning

The best way to plan a family trip is to delegate planning responsibilities. Tell your kids to choose attractions that they would like to visit. Tell them to plot a map of the city and pin the attractions of the city on it. Give them ideas on how to find the right information. This could be either through books, mobile apps or simply a story from your own experience. Kids love such interactions and this helps increase their excitement meter.


1) Don’t Rush Through the Airport

With kids, it is always best to have enough buffers in your scheduling. Reach the airport with enough time on hand. Let them soak in the airport experience slowly so that they are calm before flying.

2) Get the Best Seats

If you have young babies, do request for seats close to baby stations. If you have slightly older kids, try and get window seats. If you can, it is best to do this in advance when you web check-in.

3) Plan for On-board Entertainment for Kids

While most flights these days have a wide range of entertainment options, it is best to stay prepared with your kid’s favorite books, TV shows and movies in case you think they can get cranky. You can download all of these on your tablet before you leave home.

4) Take-Off Trouble and other Aircraft Noises

Toddlers struggle with change in air pressure, especially while take-off. Do ensure that you take good care of them, feed them or put them to sleep before the flight takes off. For older kids, be present and communicate with them so that they know how to cope with take-off, seat belts, aircraft noises, et al.

Hotel Stays

1) All inclusive versus just hotels

Both have its pros and cons. Sometimes, all inclusive hotel deals throw in a lot of value for the buck. But, if you are a free flowing family and like to discover the city on your own, you could plan on your own, but this would require additional planning.

2) Kid Friendly Hotels

When selecting hotels, look for any kid-friendly features and amenities that they might have, like a shallow swimming pool, baby swimming pool, arcade club, toys section, etc.

3) Pack some Home Comforts

To make the hotel environment home-like, it is a smart choice to carry some blankets or pillows from home or may be even some of your kid’s favorite toys or books so that they feel comfortable in the alien environment.

Eating and Drinking

1) Allergy, Dress Code and Time Restrictions

Before you head to the restaurant, do remember to check for any dress code or time restrictions as you don’t want to be caught at the wrong end of it. And also get to know if they have any kid-friendly menus or kid entertainment options in their premises.

2) Picnic Meals

A lot of hotels pack picnic breakfast, lunches and brunches so that you can explore the city all morning and afternoon and not have to worry about going hungry or entering expensive restaurants with your family.

3) Restaurants with Kids Entertainment

Every city has lots of restaurants that host entertainment shows for children. Select one of them for your family meal. And do remember to book your table in advance.

Money Tips

1) Set a Trip Budget

It is best to set a budget for your entire trip and stick to it. This holds good for all inclusive holidays too.  Ideally, you should teach all your kids about money and budgeting so that they know how much they can actually spend on the entire trip for shopping, souvenirs, etc..

2) Keep Money for Emergencies

You can never foresee emergencies on a holiday. Someone might fall sick, you might lose your stuff or you might meet with an accident. While a good travel insurance policy does come in super handy in such situations, I would recommend keeping some emergency cash to smoothly tide over such situations.

3) Look out for Cheaper Transportation

A lot of cities offer free shuttles from the airport to the hotel and sometimes even to places of tourist significance. Do remember to find out if the city you are visiting has something like that. Personally, public transportation like metros, buses and trams are the cheapest and most thrilling way to explore the city. And you are away from the taxi and tuk tuk mafia too. In case you are running late or miss your public transport, you can always opt for app based taxi booking services like Uber or Lyft.

Making Memories

1) Keep a Travel Journal

Encourage your kids to document your entire trip, photos, souvenirs and experiences in a travel journal. Tell them that this will help them remember their trip in years gone by. It is also a great project.

2) Send Postcards Home

Even though we are all connected on social media these days, sometimes it is fun to go old school and send postcards home. If your kids participated in this exercise, it would be a lot of fun too. Choosing for postcards is also a great way to know the attractions in your destination.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort: A Great Landing Point to Explore all Living Root Bridges

The land of the clouds that is called Meghalaya

When I think of monsoon holidays, the land of clouds ‘Meghalaya’ comes into mind. And of course the hand guided living root bridges that are a Khasi tradition and one of a kind in the world. Meghalaya in the monsoons is a sensational experience with lush green surroundings, persistent rain like no other, descending clouds, fresh atmosphere and rich nature’s bounty. Recently, I was in the Cherrapunji area to explore the villages and the living root bridges in the monsoons. Initially, I thought that I would stay in a homestay in Nongriat, but given the wet and cold weather, I opted for some creature comforts and hence stayed at the Cherrapunjee holiday resort, a fabulous property located in the quiet village of Laitkynsew. The below hotel review is based on this recent experience of staying with them.

1) Even though the place calls itself a holiday resort, it feels more like a family run home as the local Khasi women who manage this place treat you like one of their own. These women are extremely kind, ever-accommodating and super helpful with any kind of information, guidance, etc.

2) The thing I really liked about this hotel property is that it is located in the quiet village of Laitkynsew where you can simply walk a few hundred meters from the property and meet and interact local villagers from the Khasi tribe. I played soccer with the local boys, prayed at a local church and spoke to many villagers while seeing them go about their daily lives.

A game of football surrounded by nature's bounty at Latikynsew, Meghalaya

3) And that’s not it! A lot of living root bridges – the double decker bridge of Nongriat, the longest bridge at Nongthymmai, the ones at Umunoi, Umkar and Laitkynsew are all not more than 9 kilometres away. You can simply walk to some of them, while for some, you need some form of road transport and then a trek. Then, there is the view of the many waterfalls from the hotel property and nearby, the view of the Bangladesh flood plains, the many stunning view points and the various tourist attractions of Cherrapunji (Noh Kalilkai falls, Mawsmai cave, Thangkharang park) that are not too far away. In simple words, unbelievable location.

4) The one thing that I felt while staying at the hotel is that the rooms might be a tad pricey for the state that they were in. May be, it is because of the persistent wet weather or may be because there is no competition, but I would have preferred a bit more luxury considering the fact that I paid between INR 3700 and 4400 for a room. This included breakfast and dinner.

5) Food is simple and delicious at the Cherrapunjee holiday resort. Breakfast and dinner have pre set menus and are included in the room tariffs, while lunch and other meals can be ordered from their a-la-carte menu. The chapatis here are really fresh and delicious.

6) The Cherrapunjee holiday resort stocks bay leaves, turmeric and wild forest honey that are collected from the neighbouring villages. Having bought and consumed them, I would definitely recommend buying these high quality local produce. Bay leaves cost Rs 25 per bag, turmeric (very fresh and very strong) costs Rs 100 per 250 grams and wild forest honey costs INR 700 per kilogram.

Waterfalls galore at Latikynsew, Meghalaya

7) The property does offer free wi-fi, but connection is a bit patchy. The same applies to your phone connections as well.

8) It is best to have your own mode of transport to explore the nearby villages, the living root bridges and other attractions, but the hotel does connect you with local taxi drivers for commute options. There are no buses here, but shared taxis are available in case you are looking for a cheaper mode of transport.

I loved spending my Meghalaya monsoon holiday at the Cherrapunjee holiday resort and would definitely recommend this place to all those who wish for some luxury in these beautiful villages. The only things to keep in mind for a monsoon holiday here is to take an umbrella, quick dry clothing and wear footwear meant for water (don’t bother with hiking boots).

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Travel Photo: Kids from Mishing Tribal Village, Assam

Tribal Kids, Mishing village, Panbari, Assam, India

I have been missing in blogging action for a while now. Either I have been completely off the radar or I have been playing peekaboo. Initially, it was a family emergency and lately it has been some slow travel in the North East part of India. In case you wish to know the details…I was on board Vivek Express, India’s longest train ride for 4 days covering 5,400 kms. Then spent some time in the tea gardens and tribal villages of Assam and finally, was hiking amidst the lush green living root bridges and the surrounding villages of Meghalaya. All in all, it was a monsoon holiday like none other and I am still reeling under the withdrawal symptoms. I have lots of tips, ideas, experiences and suggestions to share with you for your own holiday to the North East and right now I am processing the pictures from my trip and living those memories once again.

Do stay tuned for more updates from my recent monsoon holiday to Assam and Meghalaya as I have some amazing rural holiday and off beat ideas for Assam and Meghalaya and not to forget the experience of traveling in India's longest train ride. For the time being, enjoy this travel photo of two curious boys sitting on a traditional chang ghar (house on stilts) at Panbari, a mishing tribal village located on the fringes of Kaziranga National Park, Assam.

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