A new Facebook page

So, what’s new on Itchy Feet? A brand new Facebook page, that’s what – https://www.facebook.com/travelswithcharu

Facebook

After years of resisting – how many places in social media can I manage – I finally succumbed to the pressure and set up this page. And now to find interesting content for it on a regular basis (apart from just my own writings, yawn). And more importantly, find people to “like” the page (right now, it feels like an orphan).

And here, dear friends and kind readers, is where you come in. Have you seen the page yet? If you have been a longtime reader of this blog, or just an occasional lurker, or even a one-time visitor who has strayed here through a keyword search, do check out the page and show your liking for it.

Please head there now and make the page a much-liked one, before I lose heart and decide to shut it down. Thank you!

A bit of trivia on the mysteries of social media: I obviously wanted to call my page ‘Itchy Feet’ to maintain consistency across my social media spaces – but Facebook refused it as being inappropriate. Ah, well.

Rush hour on Inle Lake

We all live in cities where we experience rush hour traffic every day – sometimes right through the day. But that is on the roads. What about rush hour traffic on the water?

So, there we were, floating peacefully on Inle Lake, after visits to a monastery complex, a silk weaving centre and a floating village, among other things (more on this in detail later). Since everything was on the water, all travel there was carried on in boats – imagine dropping by for tea at a neighbour’s house on a boat!

We had just finished lunch and were slowly beginning the return journey to the village of Nyaung Shwe, where we were based. Life was still at that time of the day, just a few fishermen desultorily trying their luck on the water, a few “gardeners” on their boats tending to the floating gardens and some boat traffic between homes.

Alone

All of a sudden, there was a buzz on the calm waters, dozens of boats began to appear, and the air was filled with the chatter of children. A primary school – again rooted on the floating village by strong bamboo poles – had just got over for the day and mothers had come in their boats to take their children and the scene was one of complete chaos. And as with any typical end of school day, the kids could not wait to rush back home and perhaps begin playing with their friends.

School

Rush

So there were the boats criss-crossing across this narrow stretch of the lake, mothers trying to identify their children and get them on to the boats quickly. It was a scene resembling a mini traffic jam, only without any honking or cursing. Several mothers had also opted to take in other children – what we ended up calling “boat pooling” – and that was the scene was enjoyed for a full ten minutes, children sitting in a quiet orderly line on each of the boats, eager expressions on their faces, ready to begin the evening’s fun.

Pooling

Boat

This was my most memorable experience from that entire day of exploring Inle Lake, and probably one of my favourite quirky travel moments.

Do you have any such unusual moments to share – please leave a comment on it.

First impressions of Myanmar

I’ve just got back from a spectacular week of travel in Myanmar, my first time in that country, although I have been dreaming about it for years now. Myanmar is still untouched as far as tourist hordes go and there is a lot of uncertainty, misinformation about travel to that country. I found my own experience smooth and hassle-free throughout and here are my first impressions about the country:

IMG_8731

1. Myanmar is by and large a peaceful country, and there is no cause for worry for travellers, although the military is still officially in power. That is set to change soon, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party forming government in April. There is a sense of optimism everywhere, and people seem hopeful of better things for their country.

2. The big package tour groups and backpacking hordes have not made Myanmar a stop in their travel itineraries yet, but that is only a matter of time. Go now, when the country is still fairly untouristy and innocent (and that also means no touts and beggars) – these days will not last long. I went there in the peak tourist season of January but was not overwhelmed by crowds anywhere, including the big tourist sites (compared to say, an Angkor Wat).

Bagan

3. One of the best things about Myanmar is its friendly people – they are a shy lot and prefer to keep to themselves but the minute you greet the them with Minaglaba!, they break into a broad and welcoming smile.

4. English is still not spoken everywhere freely but you should be able to get by in major tourist areas and in restaurants / hotels without a problem.

5. One of the first things that struck me in Yangon was how orderly the traffic was – absolutely no honking, no lane cutting, no rash driving – very unusual for a south Asian country! It is not so in other places, but by and large, there are no traffic pile ups or unruliness.

6. The best way to get around the country is by domestic flights – expensive but the quickest option. Roads connecting towns are not in the best condition and most trips take between 8-10 hours. Railways are equally slow, in some cases, even slower than buses. And there is no concept of self drive cars and in places like Bagan, you cannot even hire a motorbike (only ebikes are allowed).

7. Almost everyone wears the traditional sarong longyi (pronounced lonji) – the longyis for men are drab and devoid of any character while the women wear theirs like wraparound skirts, with pretty, matching blouses. Teenagers, especially boys, are slowly discovering jeans and coloured hair but in general, the attire is longyi with thanakha paste applied on the face to keep the skin cool and tan-free.

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8. Although we were warned that there were no ATMs in the country, we found them almost everywhere, especially in crowded tourist spots and inside premium hotels and shopping malls (it is another matter altogether that many of these ATMs were out of order but we always managed to find another nearby). Credit cards and debit cards are still not widely accepted except in some luxury hotels, so it is best to carry cash, either in kyat (pronounced chaat) or in crisp, new US dollars (soiled, folded, torn notes are rejected straightaway).

9. We had anticipated difficulty in finding vegetarian food in Myanmar but to our utter surprise and delight, there were a variety of options (more on this in a detailed post soon). From soups to salads and noodles and fried rice, we ate to our heart’s fill at each meal.

10. The idea way to travel around a country is obviously to take it slow and linger where you like, but in practical terms, that is possible only for a lucky few. Myanmar has several significant sites but the unmissable ones are Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay – budget to spend atleast two days in each place and you can make yourself a decent itinerary in 7-8 days.

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5 reasons to visit Ladakh in winter

If you think Ladakh, you think snow-capped mountains and cerulean lakes and picture postcard scenes. But then, you also think summer months, the peak season between May and October when the world descends upon this region. Have you ever considered a trip to Ladakh in winter? Just before you begin to freeze at the thought, let me give you some reasons why you should plan that trip right now – sure, it is not a holiday to plan at the last minute since you need to be physically and mentally prepared for it. But I was in Ladakh last week and I am saying from experience that given the right kind of clothes and accessories and the right place to stay, Ladakh in winter can be a pleasant dream.

Kids1

The delight begins right from the time you land; since road travel from Manali or Srinagar is not possible, the only way is to fly in to Leh. And when you do, for more than half the way, you are greeted by sights such as this. There are no crowds jostling for space as you walk on Leh market road, no photo bombing when you try to take a pic near the Chang-La or Khardung-La boards (if they are open) and no dozens of curious monastery hoppers who zip in and out of the big monasteries on a tight schedule.

winter

Here are my top five reasons you should consider a trip to Ladakh in winter:

1. Have it all to yourself

As I said earlier, this is the only time of the year you will have Ladakh almost to yourself, sharing space only with locals and a few other intrepid souls such as yourself. Imagine this, if you make a day trip to Pangong lake, you can be an Idiot all by yourself there (since it shot to fame as the 3 Idiots Lake). You can actually hear the monks’ prayer when you visit Thiksey early in the morning, and at Lamayuru, you get to see the moonscapes around the monastery in awed silence.

Lamayuru1

Lamayuru2

2. Soak in some culture

Although monastery festivals happen through the year, this season is when you will find almost only locals making up the crowd, which means significantly lesser crowd. I was at the Spituk gustor, the festival at Spituk monastery, which is observed with masked dances, and it was a wonderful experience. The crowds were waiting in excited anticipation when we went in and took our seats to watch the dances. It was interesting to see the kind of devotion the locals showed towards the monastery and the lamas who took part in these dances. Then there is also the festival of the oracles at Matho every February / March, when specially chosen oracles (through a lottery system) get into a trance and perform some breath-taking activities, like running along the ramparts of the monastery (blindfolded, it is said) – although I have never seen this festival myself, it is one of the not to be missed Ladakh experiences.

Spituk1

Spituk2

3. Try your hand at ice hockey – or watch a match

In the summer months, outdoor activities like polo and rafting are very popular in Ladakh – but come winter, when everything freezes over, ice hockey takes the place of all other sports. Rinks are created at every available place and local teams take part in these games with gusto – and several outside teams too land up to compete with the locals. Even if you don’t know how to handle a hockey stick, watch a match for a novel sporting experience.

Hockey
(image courtesy: indianholiday.com)

4. Go in search of the elusive snow leopard

Now this can be a challenge, even for hardy outdoorsy types and dedicated wildlife enthusiasts – because the endangered snow leopard is one shy, elusive creature, and sightings are extremely rare. Looking for it means camping out in the open and sometimes walking for hours tracking its movements in the Rumbak Valley or Hemis National Park. But people who have done it claim that the snow leopard is one of the most beautiful creatures they have seen, worth every moment of the tough sighting process.

5. Walk on water (ice actually) on the Zanskar

When the Zanskar freezes completely, it is time for the popular chadar trek, which attracts seasoned trekkers from all over the world. The trek begins at Chilling and takes place over 8-9 days. The Chadar is counted as among the most challenging and difficult treks in the world, with places where the river is only 5 metres wide. I would never dare try such a trek, but for city slickers like me, there is stunning scenery everywhere, to make for stunning photo-ops.

Landscape1

Landscape2

And finally, a bonus reason:

6. Luxuriate at The Grand Dragon, Ladakh

Seriously, central heating and running hot water are luxuries in Ladakh at any time, especially so in winter. At TGDL, you get these and more, in the form of warm hospitality and large rooms overlooking the Stok Kangri. I had a variety of food experiences here, from barbecues at minus 15 degrees (think vodka and hot chocolate, jacket potatoes and tasted marshmallows, grilled sausages and mushrooms), to home-cooked Ladakhi food straight from the owners’ kitchens.

TGDL
(image courtesy: The Grand Dragon Ladakh)

I loved the little thoughtful touches in my room, such as a lip-balm (a must, must for this dry season), apricot scrub and cream, plates of dry fruits to keep up the energy levels, and parkas for sitting out in the open and for long car journeys. When you are not in the mood for an outing, stay back at the hotel for a steam and sauna session, or get them to arrange for a session with an oracle, where you can ask questions about your future.

TGDL1

In short, the perfect place to base yourself during your winter sojourn to Ladakh, a warm place to come back to at the end of cold, tiring days.

Have you been to Ladakh in winter? If so, what has your experience been? Or would you plan to now, in the future?

6 best Indian forests for tiger spotting

Tiger spotters in India have cause for jubilation this year.

After years of depressing reports about poaching, shrinking habitats and overall alarming reduction in the number of tigers in India, there is finally good news. The latest tiger census, completed towards the end of 2014, shows a 30% increase in numbers from the last census in 2011; up to 2226 from a rock bottom figure of 1706.

October is the beginning of wildlife season in India, going on till June. Most National Parks have just reopened after the torrid monsoon months, making it the perfect time to go in search of this magnificent, elusive beast.

Although spotting a tiger in the wild is a matter of luck, here are a few dedicated tiger reserves that offer the best chances to get up close and personal with them. Apart from tigers, these forests are home to other animals, including the langur (monkey), chital and sambar (deer), wild boar, wild dog, gaur (Indian bison), blue bull, fox and sloth bear.

Ranthambhore
rajasthanwildlife.in/wild-life/Ranthambhor-National-Park.htm

This is one of India’s largest national parks, and thanks to its easy accessibility from both Delhi and Mumbai, also one of the most popular. The landscape here is usually dry and brown, bounded by the Aravalli and Vindhya hill ranges. Sightings in this forest are made easier by the presence of three lakes, which tigers frequent regularly to drink water. Once you have had your fill of the wildlife experience, head to the 10th century hilltop fort close to the entrance.

How to get there: The Rajdhani Express train connects Mumbai and Delhi with the station of Sawai Madhopur, 20 kilometres away.

Where to stay: Enjoy the pleasures of glamping at one of the plush air-conditioned tents at Aman-i-Khas

Bandhavgarh
mpforest.org/bandhavgarh.html

Once the hunting ground of the Maharajahs of the region, Bandhavgarh is today counted among those reserves with the highest density of tigers. It gets its name from a hillock in the park, which is also home to the Bandhavgarh fort, believed to be over 2000 years old. This central Indian park, spread over 100 square kilometres, is also dotted with small temples and shrines. Go on a conventional jeep safari or climb onto an elephant for an exciting forest foray lasting 1-2 hours.

Bandhavgarh
(image courtesy: Samode Safari Lodge)

How to get there: The nearest airport is Jabalpur, a four-hour drive of less than 200 kilometres. Or take an overnight train from Delhi to Umaria, just 35 kilometres away.

Where to stay: Samode Safari Lodge comes with 12 private villas and a spa to unwind at after a hard day of tiger tracking.

Kanha
kanhatigerreserve.com/

This forest is where Shere Khan’s descendants from the well-loved classic The Jungle Book roam. With its splendid diversity of landscapes, especially the large open meadows, Kanha is considered one of the most beautiful forests in the country. While this forest is known primarily for tigers, the other significant animal is the hard ground swamp deer known as barasingha. In one of India’s most successful conservation efforts, this species was revived from the brink of extinction.

Kanha1
(image courtesy: Kanha Earth Lodge)

How to get there: Fly to Jabalpur from Delhi and hire a cab for the 3 hours / 170 kilometres drive to Kanha.

Where to stay: Kanha Earth Lodge has won awards for its sustainable architecture, and combines the best of rustic charm and city comforts.

Kanha2
(image courtesy: Kanha Earth Lodge)

Corbett
uttarakhandtourism.gov.in/utdb/corbett-national-park

Jim Corbett National Park, established in 1936, is India’s first and named after the legendary British hunter (of man-eaters) turned conservationist. Corbett has a stunning location, at the foothills of the Himalayas and right by the Ramganga river in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. Corbett is a favourite among bird watchers, sheltering nearly half of all the bird species found in India. Early morning safaris are also a great time for sighting large herds of elephants by the river.

Corbett

How to get there: The best option is an overnight train from Delhi to Ramnagar, less than 15 kilometres from the park.

Where to stay: Jim’s Jungle Retreat is committed to ecotourism and is situated right by the edge of the forest.

Corbett1
(image courtesy: Jim’s Jungle Retreat)

Tadoba
mahatadobatiger.com/

It is said that in Tadoba, the question is not if you have seen a tiger during the safari, but how many. Tadoba stayed off the popular tourist trail until a few years ago, when it came to the attention of wildlife lovers, with its excellent sightings of entire tiger families. This is one of the few forests in India to stay open through the year, even during the monsoon months.

Tadoba2
(image courtesy: Svasara Jungle Lodge)

How to get there: Fly to Nagpur from Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore, from where the park is 100 kilometres away by taxi.

Where to stay: With only 12 guest cottages, Svasara Jungle Lodge comes with warm hospitality and personalised service.

Tadoba
(image courtesy: Svasara Jungle Lodge)

Nagarhole
karnatakatourism.org

In the latest tiger census, the south Indian state of Karnataka – where Nagarhole is located – has come up tops in the number of tigers. Nagarhole (official, but unused, name Rajiv Gandhi National Park) also has the largest concentration of Asian elephants in the world and is an excellent habitat for Indian leopards. Keep your neck craned up to spot them perched on tree branches. Head into the jungles on a jeep or explore its fringes with a unique boat safari on the Kabini river.

Nagarhole
(image courtesy: Orange County)

How to get there: Nagarhole is an easy six hour drive (225 kilometres) from Bengaluru. The closest railway station is Mysore, less than two hours away.

Where to stay: Right by the Kabini, the décor at Orange County is inspired by the tribal villages around the forest.

Nagarhole2
(image courtesy: Orange County)

Quick tips for tiger tracking

~ The official forest guides who accompany every safari jeep are experienced and astute. Follow their lead and stay patient through their many starts and stops inside the jungle.
~ Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of the tiger, like pugmarks, alarm calls and territorial markings.
~ And finally, go for as many safaris as possible during your time at the destination to increase your chances of sighting a tiger.

***
This story was published in the 48 Hours magazine of South China Morning Post in November 2015.

Why you should visit Tamil Nadu in 2016

Mahabs

My home state of Tamil Nadu has found a place in the NY Times’ list of must-do destinations for 2016 – rightly described as a gateway to India’s cultural core. From the temples of Rameshwaram to the hills of Ooty, the music concerts of Chennai to the jallikattu of Madurai, the spicy kaara kuzhambu of Chettinadu to the fragrant filter kapi of Kumbakonam, the silks of Kanjeevaram to the bobble-head dolls of Thanjavur, there is something for everyone in the state.

See which of these reasons will compel you to pack your bags and head down south right away (and remember, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg)…

History

If there is one immediate association with the state, then it is the magnificent temples that have withstood the test of time for several centuries – there are the blockbuster deities like Brihadeeswara at Thanjavur, Meenakshi at Madurai, Nataraja at Chidambaram and then the dozens and dozens of smaller temples, each with an interesting story and history. Then there are the palaces and mansions, like the magnificent ones at Chettinadu, with Burma teak, Italian marble and Belgian chandeliers; the shore temples and rock-cut caves of Mahabalipuram; the Danish fort at Tranquebar and the 16th century Gingee fort; the art gallery at Thanjavur palace with its hundreds of Chola age bronze statues…

Thanjavur

Night falls on the Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur

Madurai

The magic of sunlight inside the Madurai Meenakshi temple

Chettinadu

Outside the magnificent Kanadukathan Palace

Culture

Tamil Nadu is the cradle of classical dance and music in the country; think Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Drop by at the wonderful Kalakshetra Foundation for a whiff of the state’s most popular dance form or base yourself in Chennai during the famous “kutcheri” (concert) season every December – January, where hundreds of free music and dance performances take place at venues across the city, attracting both locals and NRI aficionados. Folk art forms also live on across the state, with forms like poi-kaal kudirai, kolattam and karagam still performed on festivals and occasions.

Bharatnatyam

If music be the food of love…

Arts and crafts

The Thanjavur painting style has flourished for over three centuries now, still finding admirers as far away as Australia and the USA – walk into any artist’s home in the town to see this art form come to life. Or very simply, walk through the streets of any town early in the morning to watch women draw intricate kolam patterns freehand, the designs elegant and sophisticated enough to beat any complex painting style. Head to Kanjeevaram (also known as Kanchipuram) to see weaving at its best, where rich colours play with striking patterns to create mini masterpieces in silk.

Dolls

Keep nodding, thalai aati bommai

Painting

Thanjavur paintings usually carry images of gods and goddesses

Food

A tumbler of degree kapi anyone? Or, what about a tall glass of jil jil jigarthanda? It is now time for you to think beyond – way beyond dosa and idli – when it comes to Tamil Nadu food. Every region has its own specialties, from the well known piquant meats of Chettinadu to the lesser known and more subtle flavours of Thanjavur vegetarian cooking. You will also have several pleasant discoveries like the melt-in-the-mouth macaroons of Tuticorin and the gooey Thirunelveli halwa. Go ahead, chart out a culinary exploration course for yourself – and believe me, you will not be disappointed.

Food

A traditional Tamil vegetarian meal

Nature

Living in Bangalore, I find myself heading for the gorgeous hills of Ooty ever so often, or the verdant tea plantations of Coonoor – and for those looking for quieter options, there is Kodaikanal (esp offseason), Yercaud, Pollachi. Walk on the world’s second longest beach at Marina and see the confluence of three seas at Kanyakumari. Get drenched under the Kutralam waterfalls to beat the heat or take a coracle ride in Hogenakkal. Go wildlife spotting in the forests of Mudumalai or bird-watching in the marshes of Vedanthangal. And above all don’t miss the fascinating mangroves at Pichavaram, a complex network of canals and inlets, counted among the largest in the world.

Ooty

The hills of Ooty seen through the train window

Hogenakkal

Hogenakkal, or smoking rocks

Pichavaram

The green-blue mangroves of Pichavaram

So, have you travelled in Tamil Nadu at all? Do drop a comment on your experience…

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