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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Top Normandy tours to try in 2020

The medieval island of Mont Saint Michel, Normandy, France

Normandy, located along the northern side of France, boasts of not just an amazing coastline with picturesque views, but the entire region is deeply entrenched in history. If you want to see those sites and places that you have read about in school about World War II, you can see them in person when you explore Normandy. This is your chance to get a whole new perspective of world history.

The beaches and battlefields of Normandy remind you of the D-day when the Allied forces landed here to combat the German forces. That was the turning point in history, which marks the start of the end of World War II. While those days have long gone, the history remains to remind you of that era. This is why locals and tourists arrive to take guided tours of these beaches, memorials, and cemeteries to learn about World War II and pay respect to the soldiers.

Saint Cenéri Le Gerei, Normandy, France

Here are some of the most popular Normandy sightseeing tours to explore and bring that history alive, as well as enjoy some stunning views.

American cemetery and Memorial, Normandy, France

1) Utah and Omaha landing beaches
- Begin your D-Day adventure with a visit to Utah and Omaha landing beaches and retrace the history. Omaha beach is where the most lethal battles took place. After you have explored the beach and visited the D-Day museum, head for the Utah beach and the US military cemetery. During the tour, stop to admire the magnificent viewpoints and the lunar landscapes on the breath taking cliffs.

Arromanches les-Bains port, Normandy, France

2) A tour of Caen
- Plan a customized walking tour to discover the best places and insider knowledge of Caen and learn more. The historical tour takes you not just to the iconic landmarks and monuments but is going to change the way you travel. Learn about the history of the place as well as local cultural events.

3) Battle fields tour - This tour is just perfect for you if you want to see the most important sites where the main events of World War II took place. Visit the memorial cemeteries and museums of Normandy as well as enjoy the changing scenery of the French countryside. Some essential sites of interest include Sainte-Mere Church, the Airborne Museum as well as the German Memorial Cemetery. This is the region where massive D-Day operations took place.

4) The British airborne and sword beach tour - Do not miss the chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery and explore the historic sites. Get a deep insight into one of the most tragic events in history as you visit Merville Gun Battery and Museum and the Commonwealth Military Cemeteries. Pay tribute to the fallen soldiers and get a plethora of knowledge about what happened in Normandy.

Rouen Cathedral, Normandy, France

5) Mont Saint-Michel tour
- Take a guided tour of the old village of Mont Saint-Michel and learn more about the 1,300 years of the history of the Breton. You feel like transported back in time as you walk through narrow cobblestone streets and take a journey back to the Middle Ages. Learn the history of the settlement and visit the Mont Saint-Michel monastery built on top of the rock. Enjoy panoramic views as you ascend and listen to the stories about the island. It is interesting to see a mix of military and religious architecture in the historic dungeons.

Falaisas Etretat, Normandy,France

6) Normandy’s D-Day sites tour
- Plan a tour that takes you to the key locations of D-Day sites and learn about the history as well as admire the cliffs and beaches. Pay your respects and homage at the different memorial sites and cemeteries that you come across and remember all those who fought in the war.

Photo Courtesy: The photographs in this post have been borrowed from wikipedia.org under the creative commons license. Each photograph has been linked to its host page on wikipedia.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Indonesia’s Borobudur: World’s largest Buddhist temple and a work of marvel

Bright day at Borobudur Temple, Indonesia

It ranks with Burma’s Bagan and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat as one of the greatest archaeological sites of South East Asia. It is Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, indigenous Indonesia ancestor worship and Hinduism. It is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and a true work of marvel. I am talking about Indonesia’s famous Borobudur temple that is home to one of the largest and most complete ensembles of Buddhist reliefs in the world.

The batik sarongs that everyone has to wear while visiting Borobudur Temple

Built in the 9th century under the reign of the Sailendra dynasty, Borobudur is a giant of a temple. It consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped a central dome. It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. Built using Javanese Buddhist temple architecture, this place for Buddhist pilgrimage is a treat to the eye and tells many stories.

Stories depicted on Borobudur walls

The journey starts at the bottom of the massive temple and goes all the way to the top through stairways and corridors, each decorated with beautiful relief panels on its walls and balustrades. Out of the 9 floors, the bottom three represent desires, the middle three represent forms and the top three represent formlessness. And beyond these nine floors are the volcanoes of Merbabu and Merapi and the lush green cover in between. All making for a fantastic climb to the top of Borobudur.

The mighty Borobudur Temple of Indonesia

This journey through the city of Buddhas tells you many stories – Buddha’s past lives, Buddha’s path to enlightenment, the birth of Buddha, the jatakas and avadanas, the law of Karma, the three realms of Buddhist cosmology, the 6 different postures of Buddha and more. These stories can be seen through the wall reliefs that adorn this nine floored temple. It is best to go in the company of a knowledgeable guide in case you wish to understand the wall reliefs completely.

Lion guarding the Borobudur gate, Indonesia

Everything about Borobudur’s epic proportions scream awesomeness. It is built as a single large stupa, but when looked from the top, it looks like a giant tantric Buddhist mandala. The bell shaped stupas that adorn this monument at each of its floors are designed using ancient megalithic traditions incorporated with Mahayana Buddhist ideas and symbolism.



The entire monument was laid without mortar and it stands tall today due to its knobs, indentations and dovetail joints. It enjoys excellent drainage through its beautifully designed channels and gargoyle spouts. And it has been designed with precise mathematical calculations.

Carvings on the stones that make up Borobudur, Indonesia

And then there are the bas reliefs that were carved onto the temple once the entire structure was ready. Everything about it – its design, its size, its location, its ideals and philosophy and its stories make it a dream for anyone who loves civilizations, history, art, design and architecture.

View from Borobudur's East entrance

Borobudur is a marvel that has to be feasted with ones own eyes. Photographs and videos hardly do any justice to its grandeur. One has to climb its steep flight of stairs, admire the bas reliefs while catching their breath, soak in the views in the yonder and keep repeating the process till they are one with the temple, the sky and the surrounding landscape.

The many bell shaped stupas of Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia

Borobudur is a place that one has to see in their lifetime and a must visit if you are planning a holiday to Indonesia. It is a beautiful mix of spirituality, architecture, nature, history and the rich principles of Buddhism. I love this temple wonder and would return to it in a heart beat.

Indonesian kids pose for me at Borobudur Temple, Indonesia

Best season to visit:

Borobudur is accessible all year round. Days can get warm, but nothing worth worrying about.

Rains can add a new dimension to the overall temple experience and they also bring with them vibrant sunrises and sunsets.

Do watch out for any eruption from Gunung Merapi as that can disturb the environment in and around Borobudur temple.

Borobudur Temple - the largest Buddhist temple in the world

How to reach there:

The nearest airport  and railway station would be Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta has daily flights from South East Asia, Jakarta and Bali. And it is well connected by the trains that ply the island of Java. Basically lots of options to reach here from Jakarta, Bali, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

From Yogyakarta, Borobudur temple is about 40 kms or 75 minutes away. You can either rent a motorcycle or car, hire a taxi or take the public bus from Yogyakarta to Borobudur.

Borobudur Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Timings and entry formalities:

Borobudur is open from 6 AM through 5 PM. The tickets can be purchased at the counter either at Borobudur or Prambanan. If you only want ticket to Borobudur temple, it costs USD 22 per foreign national. If you are planning to visit both Prambanan temple and Borobudur temple, it is best to opt for the joint ticket that costs USD 40 per foreign national and that is valid for two days.

One is required to wear a sarong over their clothes. Such sarongs are given free of cost along with the purchase of a entrance ticket and needs to be returned while exiting.

The wonder called Borobudur temple in Indonesia

Where to stay:

The best option with the widest range of accommodation would be Yogyakarta city, about 75 minutes away. Hotels, hostels, homestays and more can be found here thus catering to travelers with all kinds of budget.

If you wish to catch sunrise at Borobudur or if you wish to reach early to avoid the crowds, then may be, you can stay at the homestays and hotels located near Borobudur campus.

The massive Borobudur Temple in Indonesia

Where to eat:

There are food stalls just outside Borobudur campus for a quick bite. The nearest restaurants would be near the bus station and the best choice of restaurants would be in Yogyakarta city. It would be best to carry a snack and some water with you when you visit Borobudur.

Batik Sarongs everywhere at Borobudur Temple, Indonesia

Other nearby tourist attractions:

1) Prambanan: The capital of Hinduism in Indonesia

2) Gunung Merapi: One of the deadliest volcanoes in the world

School kids on a Borobudur Excursion, Indonesia

3) The cultural city of Yogyakarta

4) The black sandy beaches of Parangtritis

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Want to get the most out of your travels? Blend in with the locals!

Blend in with the locals

The saying goes “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” What that famous quote is essentially saying is to blend in with the locals! When you’re traveling to a new country, the locals can spot out a tourist like a sore thumb. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. It can be a good thing in the sense that if they know you need help, they’re happy to help but it can also work against you in the sense that some locals will try to take advantage of you and pose ill intentions towards you.

If you had to choose, you would ideally want to blend in with the locals. Not only is it going to teach you how to adapt to new surroundings but it’s also going to allow you to get the most out of your travels by immersing yourself in the culture.

Our perception of each other is rather funny if you think about it… There are tell-tale signs every culture has that lets locals know that “they aren’t from here!” It’s everything from how you dress to your mannerisms… all those things can set yourself apart from the locals in a foreign country.

Immersing yourself in a new culture and blending in with the locals can be a bit of a challenge for some, especially if you’re traveling solo and have never travelled abroad before. But that’s the great thing about it… You don’t know anyone there so if you do embarrass yourself, you don’t know them and they don’t know you.

One thing is for sure… it’s a lot less embarrassing to mess up in front of strangers than it is to mess up in front of the people you know. When you embarrass yourself in front of people you know, you’ll be the butt of jokes for years to come… when you embarrass yourself in front of strangers, your embarrassment won’t last long because you’ll be hopping on a plane to somewhere else pretty soon, and you can leave that embarrassing moment in that particular country!

Whether you’re a digital nomad, traveling long-term, or taking a sabbatical, if you’re traveling to a foreign country and want to get the most out of your travels, you’re going to have to blend in with the locals… after all, when in Rome, right?

Blending in with the Locals

Research the traditions and customs

Local meeting in the gorgeous desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wherever you’re traveling to, you want to take the time out before you board the plane to research the traditions and customs of your travel destination… there’s nothing worse than calling the wrong attention to yourself as the “cultural clutz.”

Every culture has some form of a cultural faux pas… some of them are true and some of them aren’t but the best way to avoid them is to research local customs. Things like certain hand gestures and greetings that might be acceptable in your culture might be extremely offensive in another culture so make sure to do proper research ahead of time.

Go easy on tourist fashion

In deep prayer at Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan

You’re probably thinking “Tourist fashion? What’s that exactly?” Oh, you know what tourist fashion is… It’s the khaki cargo pants with the hundreds of outer pockets… It’s the clear fanny pack that’s filled with hand sanitizer, local guides, your wallet, and attraction pamphlets. Those two items alone scream TOURIST!

Backpacks also say “tourist” as well but not as much as someone holding a big map! The thing that separates backpacks in the sea of tourists is that backpacks can be used for anything. You could be a student carrying your books in it. You could also be a digital nomad carrying your laptop in it to start the process of building your first website at a local coffee shop…

The point is that backpacks get more of a pass than fanny packs, water bottle holsters, and cargo pants with millions of pockets, so lose the unnecessary get-ups and blend in… The best way to do it is to look up pictures online and to also take mental notes as soon as you arrive. Just be observant of people passing you by and how they dress.

Go where the locals go

Kids of Fethiye, Turkey go for a day out

So you’ve made the decision to interact with the locals, now all you have to do is find them. Talk to staff members at hotels and local coffee shops to find out where everyone goes for fun. You can even ask the staff what they like to do for fun. You also want to keep in mind that depending on your schedule, you might have to make some adjustments. You might be in a town where the city comes alive at night versus during the day… figure that out and then go mix and mingle with the locals!

Eat like a local

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a traveller is to go to destinations and eat the same things as you would in your hometown. Of course, lots of foreign countries have chain restaurants there but why on Earth would you eat there! According to spoonuniversity.com, tasting different foods is the best part of traveling. In fact, there are people in the world who base their whole vacations around foods that are in a particular location! Those people are called “foodies.”

If you’re visiting Italy, you’re going to want to eat authentic Italian food, not Olive Garden! It’s not that Olive Garden isn’t delicious or authentic but you’re in Italy for crying out loud… go to a local eatery and enjoy some local, authentic Italian food.

You can actually learn a lot from eating like a native too. You will learn anything from not going out to dinner after a certain time to knowing which utensils go for which types of foods… believe it or not, there are different types of eating utensils besides forks, knives, and spoons.

Are you blending yet?

Young Boys from Punakha, Bhutan

So at this point, you have a working guide to help you get the most out of your travels and the secret is to blend in with the locals… It might be difficult at first but think of it like getting into a pool… the water is cold when you first get in but the longer you stay in the water, the more the water warms up to you. That’s how blending in with the locals will feel.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Wahiba Sands: Oman’s Favorite Desert Holiday Destination

The dunes of Wahiba Sands, Oman

It is a world of rolling sand dunes some of which stand over a hundred metres tall. It is a world famous for its native desert flora and fauna. It is the favorite desert holiday destination in Oman. I am talking about Wahiba Sands that is named after the Bedouins who call this shifting land their home.

The sensational Wahiba Sands of Oman at sunset

Wahiba sands or Sharqiya sands is where you head to if you are keen on some desert adventure. Dune bashing in 4x4s, Quad biking over dunes, dune boarding, camel rides to the deep pockets of the desert or simply sitting on the dunes in the night and watching the milky way, Wahiba sands packs all of it into one fantastic desert experience.

Dune Bashing at Al Sharqiya Sands, Oman

Add to it traditional Bedouin food, music and culture and rich Omani hospitality and you have a desert holiday package that will rival some of the best across the world. And that’s not that, it also makes for a great adventure honeymoon in a country that is a great honeymoon destination for Indians.

Omani men take a break from dune bashing at Wahiba Sands

Right from the time you are welcomed with some local dates and some freshly ground qawwah coffee to the time you train your sights on the rolling sand dunes, you cannot think of anything buy adventure here. The tall mountains of red sand offer opportunities to people of all ages and those with different adventure needs. You could simply roll down the dunes, watch the sun set over the dunes, try your hands controlling the 4x4 in the steep shifting sands of the dunes, board on some tall dunes or just relax at the sight of one of the mother nature’s most interesting creations. Wahiba sands is such that it makes everyone feel special here.

Walking down the dunes is so much fun

So the next time you are looking at a desert holiday destination for some offbeat adventure, think of Wahiba Sands in south central Oman. May be, you could go there the next time you find yourself having a long weekend holiday or even better if you have more time at hand. I certainly loved my time here and can’t wait to return to discover these mighty sand dunes a bit more.

Dune Surfing is a fun sport

How to get Oman visa as an Indian citizen:

If you are an Indian passport holder with a valid US, UK, Japan, Canada or Schengen visa, then you can get visa on arrival in Oman. You can also apply for the Oman tourist visa from the Oman embassy in India. For full details, look up my article titled ‘Oman visa for Indians’.

A Camel at Wahiba Sands, Oman

How to reach there:

The nearest airport would be Sur airport and the drive from Sur to Wahiba Sands should take you a good 3 hours in a four wheel drive vehicle.

The nearest international airport with the best connectivity to India would be Muscat international airport and the drive from Muscat to Wahiba sands should take you about 5 hours in a four wheel drive vehicle.

Guests are welcomed with dates and Quewah coffee in Oman

Best season to visit:

If you can handle the heat, Wahiba sands is accessible all year around.

If you cannot handle the heat, it is best to opt for the winter months between October through February.

Lovely Mandoos, Quewah Jars and other artifacts inside a traditional Bedouin House, Oman

Where to stay:

Most of the properties located at Wahiba sands are luxury tented accommodation located right by the sand dunes. They cost a pretty penny, but offer great access to the sand dunes thus making for a fabulous desert holiday destination.

Young Bedouins ride on camels in the desert of Oman

If you prefer something cheaper, yet more cultural, stay with the Bedouins in their traditional homes. Stay will be basic, but the experience will be rich. After all, they are true denizens of the desert.

Traditional Souvenirs designed by Bedouin Women of Wahiba Sands, Oman

Where to eat:

There are only two options to eat in the desert here. You eat either at your desert tent/hotel or you eat at a Bedouin household. To have food at the Bedouin homes, one needs to inform them in advance.

The lovely landscape of Wahiba Sands, Oman

Other nearby tourist attractions:

1) Sur: The coastal city with white houses where ships are handmade.

2) Nizwa: The historical heart of Oman

The Arabian Oryx Desert Camp at Wahiba Sands, Oman

3) Muscat: The capital of Oman and a bustling metropolis with traditional souks and castles.

4) Al Hamra: The oasis settlement that is surrounded by date palms and mountains.

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Sunday, February 09, 2020

Patan: Nepal’s Cultural Hotspot

Patan Heritage Zone, Nepal

It is one of Nepal’s cultural gems. It’s Durbar square that is full of temples, palaces,  statues, stupas and other amazing sights is a UNESCO World heritage site. Along with the durbar squares at Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, it forms the trinity of UNESCO world heritage cultural sites in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal. A stronghold of the Newari community, it is home to the palace where the Malla kings once resided. I am talking about the cultural city of Patan, that also goes by the name of Lalitpur.

Gargoyle at Patan Heritage Zone

Deriving its name from the Sanskrit world Lalitapattan, Lalitpur or Patan is full of cultural delights. And most of these delights can be found concentrated inside Patan’s durbar square. Water spouting from gargoyles, intricately carved pillars, stunning red brick foundations, beautifully carved stone sculptures, massive temples, colorful locals, snippets from Newari and Nepali culture, extravaganza of shopping avenues and many more cultural delights can be found in this heritage Durbar square.

Street Moment from the small shops of Patan, Nepal

A lot of Durbar square was damaged during the 2015 earthquake that hit Nepal, but a lot of it still stands tall. The Palace, the museum, the octagonal stone Krishna temple, the Shankar Narayan temple, the Vishwananth temple with the two stone elephants in front of it, the golden temple, the Krishna stone temple and the Mahaboudha temple are some of the architectural marvels in the durbar square of Patan.

Beautiful temples at Patan Heritage Zone

But, there are many more smaller temples and stories of creativity all across Patan’s durbar square and beyond. Then, there are the old Newari residential houses and the small places that have been usurped by the hawkers. You are never far away from amazing cultural sights in Patan. All you need is some patience and a keen eye to track these stunning locations.

Street Moment from a temple in Patan Heritage Zone, Nepal

A center of both Hinduism and Buddhism, Patan durbar square has a total of 136 courtyards and 55 major temples. The Malla kings of Lalitpur, the Pradhanas and the Thakuri dynasty are credited for its architectural marvels. In its hey days, it used to be a very prosperous city. Today, it may not be rich in terms of money, but is certainly rich in terms of art and culture.

Local Nepali Gentleman filling water at a gargoyle in Patan

The best way to soak in Patan’s magic is to park yourself in front of one of its many action hot spots and watch the cultural world whirl by. As you keep your eyes and ears open, you will notice many more cultural elements that lie hidden behind or by the main ones. Repeat this technique at other hot spots and treat yourself to the cultural riches of Patan.

Krishna Temple and the Patan Heritage Zone

If you are a temple, art or culture lover, then Patan has to be on the top of your Nepal holiday itinerary. Even if you are in Nepal on a trekking trip, Patan’s cultural gems should certainly make for a day trip getaway. It is a place you definitely should not miss on your next holiday to Nepal.

Beautiful sculptures inside the Golden temple of Patan

Best season to visit:

Patan is open all year around, but the summer months can get quite hot.

The rains add character to this cultural city, while the winter months are perfect to bask in the sun and go on long walks.

Souvenirs on sale at Patan, Nepal

How to reach here:The nearest airport would be Kathmandu.

From Kathmandu, you can either opt for a micro bus (more like a shared van) from Ratnapark, local buses or hire your own private taxi. It should take you between 60 and 90 minutes to reach the heritage area of Patan.

Elderly Nepali gentleman who carries water for a living at Patan, Nepal

Vehicles are not allowed inside the heritage area and hence these are best explored on foot.

Beautiful metal carving at the Patan Palace

Where to stay:

If you wish to embrace local culture, I would recommend the homestays in Patan. They offer an immersive experience while allowing you to be away from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu.

If you wish to be more centrally located or if you wish for luxurious accommodation, I would recommend staying in Kathmandu city.

Guardian Lions in front of a temple at Patan Heritage zone

Where to eat:

There are a lot of cafes, bakeries and restaurants around the durbar square area that offer a variety of food items ranging from traditional Nepali thali to Indian and international food.

Ideally, you could have a traditional Nepali thali for lunch and may be choose a scenic cafe like Cafe du temple for a cup of tea or coffee whil enjoying the gorgeous view of the Durbar square.

Portrait from inside a temple in Patan

Other nearby tourist attractions:

1) Bhaktapur: An ancient city known for its art, culture, festival, dances and indigenous lifestyle of Newari community.

2) Changu Narayan Temple: An ancient temple with lovely valley views

3) Kathmandu: The bustling capital of Nepal with its many temples and UNESCO World heritage Durbar square

At a roadside souvenir shop in Patan, Nepal

4) Kirtipur: One of the oldest settlements in the Kathmandu valley

5) Nagarkot: One of the top places to see the sun rise over the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas

6) Dhulikhel: A nice quiet village with a stunning view and where one can see the non-tourist side of Nepali life

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