A day trip to Bratislava

A revolving restaurant inside a flying saucer. A bronze statue peeping out of a manhole. A church that reminds you of a delectable cupcake. Buildings draped head to toe in art. Scary puppets as the most common souvenir. Bratislava is quirky with a capital Q. It has one of the coolest names for a city and a personality to match.  

art in bratislava
Buildings covered in art in Bratislava
Scary souvenirs

Bratislava probably won’t give you enough reasons to travel halfway across the globe to visit. But if you are in the neighbourhood (especially Vienna or Budapest), missing it will be a sin.

We made a day trip from Budapest. The train journey takes around 2.5 hours. We got there at 10 am and had about 8 hours in town before catching the train back. Bratislava packs more than its fair share of curiosities so we were always going to be stretched for time on a day trip. Now I am never in favour of skimming through a place to cross it off but on this occasion, the lure of visiting Bratislava (and hence a different country!) triumphed. But we decided to take it easy and see whatever time permitted without getting pressured into packing in a lot. 

The journey from Vienna takes only an hour and connections are more frequent so a daytrip from Vienna offers more time in the city. I referred to train bible seat61 to plan the journey.

Our circuit covered most of what is noteworthy though I can’t claim to have seen everything I wanted to. We covered all of it on foot, starting from the railway station.

Everything’s within a 5 km stretch

St Michael’s Gate

St Michael’s Gate

St Michael’s Gate is about 2km from the train station and is the entry point to the tourist circuit. It is the only surviving gate out of four that once served as the portals to fortified medieval Bratislava (then known by its German name, Pressburg). The original Gothic tower was replaced in the 18th century by a Baroque tower. The tower and a small museum inside are accessible for a fee and views of the town square from the top of the tower make the climb worthwhile.

Below the tower is the zero kilometre plate that marks the directions and distances to 29 leading cities in the world and it makes for a nice photo-op.

Main Town Square

Panorama of the Main Square

For a small city, Bratislava has no dearth of impressive squares. But the main square, as the name suggests, is, well, the main square. This is your quintessential European town square with a fountain in the centre, surrounded by lovely colourful buildings and is a prime spot for people watching. The Old Town Hall dating back to 15th century is worth checking out.

We wandered off the main square to explore surrounding alleys, some paved some cobblestoned but all lined with evidently old and pretty buildings. It felt like one of those places that uplifts the spirits even if you are just walking through, without encountering anything of note or repute. That is when you tend to notice beautiful potted flowers on a home’s window sill or a wisecrack on a shop board or some locals getting on with life. You know, the little capsules of joy. 

Cumil the sewer worker

We also came across Cumil, a bronze statues of a sewer worker peeping out of manhole. His head has been knocked off many times by careless motorists and he has, in turn, tripped many a careless drunkard who failed to notice him. Speculation abounds on whether he is a benign sewer worker or in fact a peeping Tom looking up women’s skirts. To me he looks like a philosopher trapped in a worker’s body.   

Church of St. Elisabeth

The Blue Church

This church is located just a short walk away from the main square. It is popularly known as the blue church because the entire exterior and interior is painted in some or the other shade of blue. I have seen much more imposing churches but never a prettier one.  This may be borderline blasphemy but I just couldn’t stop thinking that this looks like a delectable dessert. The church was built in the art nouveau style in the early 20th century.  

Blue interiors of the Blue Church

St Martins Cathedral

Clock Tower of St Martin’s Cathedral dominates Bratislava’s skyline

The largest church in Bratislava has been historically important as the coronation church of the Hungarian empire’s Habsburg dynasty for almost three centuries. The tower of the church was initially a part of the fortification of the city and served as a defensive bastion. Though we couldn’t quite find time for it, the crypts are said to worthy of a visit.

Hike up to Bratislava Castle

The site of the castle has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC and has always been historically important once serving as the border of the Roman Empire. It was the main castle of the Kingdom of Hungary when the Ottomans captured present day Hungary in the 16th century and held sway till late 18th century before losing prominence.

The UFO Bridge across the Danube

Unfortunately, we had little time to explore the interiors and delve into the history. We went up the castle hill just for the panoramic views of the city. The vantage point offers views of the old town on one side and the new vibrant Bratislava on the other side across the Danube. It also looks upon Novy Most, the glittering bridge across the Danube and its flying saucer shaped restaurant and observation deck.

As we took in the views of the glorious historical town on one side and the vibrant and resurgent city across the river, a drizzle broke out.  A look at the looming clock tower of the St Martin’s Cathedral told us that it was time to make the walk back to the station.

We would have liked to explore the castle and dine at the UFO restaurant, walk along the Danube and over the UFO Bridge. Nevertheless, we went back delighted with the charming Bratislava and were very happy with our decision to spend a day here.

Wonders of Slovenia

When I called the Slovenian Embassy in New Delhi to follow up on our Visa application, the gentleman from the Embassy replied “Don’t worry sir, we are on it”. “Should I share my reference number so that you can track me down?” I enquired. “That won’t be necessary, yours was the only application this week”, came the reply. And in that instant I knew that we had made an excellent choice in picking our destination.

In the Instagram age, no place can claim to be a hidden gem anymore. Slovenia is at least an unspoilt gem, if not really a hidden one. Ever since I saw the Chef’s Table episode on Slovenian chef Ana Ros and its depiction of the Slovenian countryside, I wanted to be there. But it always seemed too far-flung and in the middle of nowhere. Until I started making the itinerary for a trip to Prague and Budapest and it looked temptingly close. We decided to spend a week in Slovenia on our trip through Central Europe.

Slovenian Countryside is full of post card worthy views
Slovenian countryside is full of post card worthy views

Slovenia is a tiny country but offers a melange of varied terrain.  It has mountains and national parks, rivers and gorges and 30 miles of Adriatic coast. The capital Ljubljana is a hip city. Impressive castles are strewn across the country. For a country its size, Slovenia punches well above its weight. Driving through Slovenia is the best way to enjoy the country and its many majestic sites sprinkled every few kilometres.

Driving in Slovenia
Just your regular roadside view

Driving in Slovenia

Indian driving licenses in English suffice for renting the car. We got our car from SixT in Ljubljana and found there services reliable, professional and reasonably prices. Our Renault Kaptur cost us about €60 a day including the in-built navigation, baby car seat and premium zero-liability protection package. Having a car with an inbuilt GPS is worth the extra €5 a day. Opting for a zero liability insurance is a no brainer. There are things on which one can pinch pennies, insurance is not one of them. Cars using the highways in Slovenia need to have a vignette which is usually included with rental cars.

Here’s our travelogue that doubles up as a suggested 6-day itinerary. 

Day 1: Arrive in Ljubljana, Preseren Square

Just saying Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-blyah-nuh) out aloud a few times generates good vibes. Seriously, try it! Imagine what actually being there can be like. Ljubljana is a vibrant, compact city. It has the quintessential old town, a castle, green spaces, trendy dining options and a hipster district. Pretty much everything a European capital needs to be to be taken seriously. Most things of interest to visitors are within walkable distance, centred around Preseren Square.    

We arrived in Ljubljana from Budapest by train. Our Airbnb was a very pleasant 10 minute walk away, located near Union Brewery. We spent the evening soaking in the sights and sounds of Preseren Square. Cafes, restaurants, gelaterias and souvenir shops line the streets. One can easily while away the evening people watching and getting oriented to the city. 

Day 2: Tivoli Park & Ljubljana Zoo, Ljubljana Castle

Two years ago, if someone told me that I would spend half a day in a European city visiting the local zoo, I would politely tell him that he needed help. But that was before Nyra came around. Now, we felt it would be a good way of rewarding our two year old for her cooperation during the entire trip. We went in for her only to discover the child within.

Tivoli Park
Autumn colours in Tivoli Park

Tivoli Park is a huge expanse of green that even has a castle inside. We packed some coffee and croissant and took a leisurely, refreshing stroll through the park to reach Ljubljana Zoo. It is home to sea lions, koalas, tigers, chimpanzee, giraffe and many other interesting animals. The zoo is well kept and the animals well cared for.

The entrance costs €8. But watching Nyra scream with excitement on seeing these animals in flesh and blood, hitherto encountered only in books, was priceless. It took us 3 hours to do justice to all the residents.

Ljubljana Zoo
Nyra had a ball at Ljubljana Zoo

An alternative for those travelling without kids would be the Metelkova district. This is cluster of erstwhile army barracks has been squatted and converted into a cultural hub covered in vibrant graffiti.  

From the zoo, we took a bus to Preseren Square again, this time to admire it in the light of the day.  To use the bus, one needs the Urbana Card which costs €2 and can be purchased from most newsstands. Every ride for upto 90mins costs €1.20 irrespective of the distance.   

 St Nicholas Cathedral

Frescoes of St Nicholas Cathedral
Frescoes of St Nicholas Cathedral

This is a prominent church located at Preseren Square. Though the earliest mentions of a church at this site date back to the 13th century, the current Baroque building was built in the early 18th century. The church looks mundane from the outside but the frescos inside are amazing. There are two noteworthy sculpted doors to the church that were added when Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1996.  

Ljubljana Castle

This is easily the most important thing to see in Ljubljana. It is located on castle hill just off the old town centre. The entrance ticket including the audio guide and funicular ride for € 12 offers the best value. The audio guide has lively narration and greatly enhances the tour experience. The funicular from just off Preseren Square takes one to the Castle’s entrance.

Ljubljana Castle
Ljubljana Castle

The area was first fortified in the 11th century and has since been remodelled and re-constructed several times. You may do some virtual exploration beforehand at www.ljubljanskigrad.si or choose to explore it directly in person. There is a video theatre called Virtual Castle on site that shows a documentary video on the Castle’s history.  The ceiling of Chapel of St George inside the castle premises is painted with various coats of arms and is worth checking out. The castle grapevine has a fascinating story. It has been grown from a graft of the oldest noble vine in the world from Moribor

The high point of Ljubljana (literally and metaphorically) was the Viewing Tower in the castle. It is said that on clear days you can see two-thirds of Slovenia from here.  Looking right below we saw locals and tourists alike frolicking in Preseren Square. Towards the horizon, we could see the mountains in the distance. We spent almost an hour atop the tower, right until the sun went down on our time in Ljubljana.

Day 3: Piran

Piran is a lovely town on Slovenia’s very short (47km short!) but very picturesque Adriatic coast. Piran is a 1.5 hour drive from Ljubljana (120km) and is an easy day trip. It brings together rich history and culture with spellbinding azure waters and some great sea food.

We left our car at the Fornace parking lot and took the free shuttle bus that leaves every 15 min from outside the parking lot to the city centre.

Piran had been a part of the Venetian empire from the 13th to the 18th Century. Post that it has shifted hands from the Austrian Empire to Italy and Yugoslavia among others before finally becoming a part of independent Slovenia in 1990. Its historical importance arose from its role in salt production and trade. The city was fortified to protect it from Turkish incursions.  

Tartini Square is a grand plaza eponymously named after Giuseppe Tartini, the 18th-century composer and Piran’s most famous son.  It stands on ground that was once a dock for fishing boats. Gradually prominent buildings came up surrounding the dock and dock was filled up and converted into a public square. A magnificent statue of Tartini lords over the square. The square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes. We started our exploration of Piran with a cooling gelato to beat the hot Mediterranean sun.

While ambling across the narrow winding streets, we stumbled upon Mediadom Pyhrani, a multimedia museum that has a fantastic documentation of the history, architecture and culture of Piran through interactive screens and a video. Know more about them here. The entry fee is just €5 and it is highly recommended to augment one’s understanding of Piran.

Some of the best restaurants in Piran can be found along its seaside promenade. The cuisine here is primarily Italian with some Austro-Hungarian influence. After a hearty lunch, we walked to the Church of St George and then to the walls of Piran. The tower of the church is accessible for a fee and is said to offer great views. I had had a filling lunch and decided to give it a miss.

Posing In Piran

We proceeded instead to the famous city walls of Piran. The earliest fortifications date back to 10th century and substantial parts of the fort walls remain. The view from up top of orange roofed houses dotting a triangular landmass that juts into the glittering blue waters of the Adriatic Sea is breath-taking. As we stood there watching the sun go down, it was not difficult to imagine Piran as a bustling town at the height of its prosperity and prominence, with Venetian merchant ships flocking here to trade in white gold (salt). The €2 entry fee to the complex is easily justified.    

City Walls of Piran
Million dollar views from City Walls of Piran

Those willing to pack in a little more into the day can consider adding the nearby towns of Izola or Portoroz to their itinerary. Another option is stopping by Postojna caves on the way to Piran. 

Day 4: Vintgar Gorge, Jasna Lake, Vrisic Pass

After checking out trendy Ljubljana and the old world  charm of Piran, we were all set to make our way into the north-west of Slovenia, home to Slovenia’s best known attractions – Lake Bled and Triglav National Park. 

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

We started this leg with a stop at Vintgar Gorge near Bled. It’s a 1 hour drive from Ljubljana. It is a 1.6km long gorge created by erosion caused by the Radovna river. There is a wooden boardwalk all along the gorge that makes it easily accessible.

Radovna river flowing through Vintgar Gorge
Radovna river flowing through Vintgar Gorge

The sheer drop of the gorge, the transparent water of the river, the multiple rapids and a layer of mist on top of the river’s surface creates an otherworldly feel. We took 3 hours to complete the walk and come back, not because the walk was long or tough but because we couldn’t help stopping after every few steps to click the hell out of Vintgar Gorge.

Baby strollers and pets are not allowed here because the passage is quite narrow. The gorge is open to the public only during summers so visit http://www.vintgar.si to know the latest updates. The entry fee is €5.

After a satisfying morning of moderate physical exertion, we enjoyed some freshly caught and grilled trout from the river at a restaurant nearby.      

Vrisic Pass and Jasna Lake

We were booked to stay the night in a pretty little town called Ratece, near Kranjska Gora, which fell on Slovenia’s border with Italy and Austria. But before getting there, we had planned to cross Kranjska Gora and drive along the famed Vrisic Pass and its 50 hairpin bends.

Jasna Lake
Jasna Lake

After exiting Kranjska Gora on our way to Vrisic Pass we stopped at Lake Jasna. This was easily the most underrated attraction we encountered in Slovenia. Lake Jasna flies under the radar. It doesn’t find a mention in too many to-do lists and very few tourists come here.  The lake is surrounded by mountains that are reflected in its near-transparent waters. Nyra had the best time feeding biscuits to a flock of ducks while we sat on the pier and dipped our feet in the cool waters of the lake.

Jasna Lake
Nyra’s excitement is writ large on her face

I had come to know of it through Instagram accounts I follow like igslovenia and feelslovenia. Actually as a general rule, before visiting any place, I start following Instagram handles featuring that place to discover such hidden gems.

We then drove on to Vrisic Pass. The pass winds up the mountain from Kranjska Gora and then winds down again connecting the town of Trenta. The road is in excellent maintenance (as, indeed, are all roads in Slovenia) and driving there wasn’t nearly as scary as the idea of 50 hairpin bends would make you believe. The views all around are obviously spectacular.  There are spots every few hundred metres to park the car and admire the scenery.

Vrisic Pass
Breathtaking vistas of Vrisic Pass

Near hair-pin No 8, we stopped at the Russian Chapel. The original road that is now Vrisic Pass was built by 10,000 Russian POWs during World War I under the command of the Austrian army. An avalanche killed 300 of them and the survivors built this beautiful chapel in remembrance.

Russian Chapel - Vrisic Pass
Russian Chapel

After crossing some 20-odd bends, the fading light compelled us to head back. We stopped one last time to admire the vistas and to record this moment forever in our memories. We came back to Ratece and checked into out Airbnb. We thoroughly enjoyed spending a peaceful night in this quaint little town with just a couple of restaurants and barely a handful of tourists.

Day 5: Lake Bohinj, Slap Savica, Lake Bled

Waking up to this view in Ratece

Today was the day to see the most famous attraction of Slovenia – the fairytale Lake Bled. But before that we wanted to check out the relatively low key Lake Bohinj. Bohinj is a 1 hour drive from Ratece.

Lake Bohinj is bigger than its more illustrious cousin, Bled. There is a walking path along the perimeter of the lake and there are some piers for fishing and swimming. Bohinj falls somewhere between the glamour of Bled and the untouched beauty of Lake Jasna. We posed and picnicked on the shore before heading to a nearby waterfall called Slap Savica.

It is an 8km drive from the eastern edge of the lake to the car park at Slap Savika. Thereafter, it is a moderately challenging climb for about half an hour, largely over paved steps. The hike was beautiful and enjoyable and doing it with Nyra in tow felt like an accomplishment of sorts. The waterfall was strictly okay though. There is €3 entry fee for the hike and access to the view point.

It was now time to head to Slovenia’s #1 tourist attraction which has been featured on covers of every travel magazine ever and rightly so – Lake Bled. To make it extra special, we had booked a lake view room at West Western Premier Lovec. After spending most of the trip staying in Airbnbs we wanted to splurge on the last night and what better way than getting a Lake Bled view room.

Lake Bled
View from the room spoiled by gloomy weather

Unfortunately, after being exceedingly kind throughout our trip, the weather betrayed us in Bled.  The sky became cloudy, light faded quickly and we were denied a clear view of the lake. We took a walk along the lake and started heading back.

On the way back we stumbled upon Hotel Park – the birthplace of the legendary Bled cream cake. We couldn’t resist trying it out at its place of origin. And boy, it was delicious! The identifiers of an authentic Bled cream cake are the top layer that makes a cracking sound when tapped with a spoon and the fact that the cake swivels on shaking but never collapses. 

Bled Cream Cake at Hotel Park
Bled Cream Cake cheered us up!

Day 6: Lake Bled

The weather continued to be a spoilsport with moderate to heavy drizzle throughout the morning. We consoled ourselves thinking that we had seen enough of the bright, sunny Bled in photos. We were getting to experience a different side of Bled first hand. Also, if we ever needed a reason to come back to Slovenia, admiring Lake Bled on a bright sunny day would always be reason enough.

We took the boat ride to the Bled Island. The round trip costs €12 including waiting time to explore the island. The Church of Assumption of Mary is the main attraction on the island. There is a wishing bell inside the church which one can ring to pray for good luck. The paid entry costing €4, while not entirely worthwhile, became a necessity for us to shield ourselves from the rain.

On fair weather days, Ojstrica and Osojnica are said to provide magnificent views of the lake below. Bled Castle is also worth checking out.

At noon, we started our drive back to Ljubljana with bittersweet feelings. Slovenia had totally lived up to our expectations and indeed exceeded it. But it was time to bid adieu to this lovely country and head home.

Driving through this spectacularly beautiful country and admiring its mountains and many alpine lakes, its castles and its cuisine, I couldn’t help but wonder why Slovenia should appear any lower than Switzerland in a serious traveller’s bucket list.

7 Reasons to pick Prague – and what to do once there

Some people grow up dreaming of exchanging a kiss in front of a lit up Eiffel Tower or cruising the dreamy canals of Venice with their special one.  But for some others, the charm lies simply in the cobblestoned streets, the cafes that line them and in being surrounded by mesmerizing architecture. If you fall in the second category, this post is for you.

Over the next few minutes of your reading time, I’ll try to convince you to choose Prague for your European vacation and let you in on how to make the most of your trip.

#1- Because there would be fewer people to bomb your photos

It gets a third of the visitor’s that Paris gets. Prague is less frequented than its more illustrious European cousins like Barcelona and Amsterdam but it packs as much of a punch.

#2 – Because it won’t break the bank

Prague is way cheaper than its Western European counterparts without lacking in any of their charms. It regularly ranks among European destinations that are great value for money.

#3- Because you can see all of it without spending a penny on transport

Explore Prague entirely on foot

That’s right. Once you reach your accommodation in Central Prague, you can see almost everything of interest without using any transport whatsoever. We had every place we wanted to visit within a 2km radius of our Jewish Quarter Airbnb.  

#4 – Because no one ever bombed the hell out of Prague

Prague’s historical low profile has served it well. It has been spared the destructions of WW II and the extensive re-building that characterised many European cities. Much of its medieval architectural marvels stand well preserved.

#5 – Because it has great neighbours

Budapest by night

Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Krakow can all be easily clubbed with a trip to Prague. Not unlike Prague, these are all on the budget end of the European travel spectrum.  

#6 – Because Czech Beer! (and some awesome places to gulp it in)

Czech Republic is the birthplace of Pilsner beers. The Czech are very proud of being the highest per capita consumers of beer in the world. Prague is also full of lovely places to have these beers in.   

#7 – Because it’s safe and that’s really important

The tourist zones of major western European cities are overrun with thieves and pickpockets. Despite ample precautions, I was relieved of my DSLR in Montmartre, Paris. My friends have met similar fates in Rome & Madrid. Prague, like much of Central Europe, continues to be much safer for tourists, with petty crime being almost non-existent.  

Woof! Quite the speel, huh! If I have managed to convince you to consider Prague for your next vacation. Prague’s medieval castle and Gothic St Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge and Astronomical Clock are perpetually thronged by tourists. But there’s much else to see and do beyond these well-known attractions during your time in Prague.

I went to Prague with my wife and 2-year old daughter this September and let me tell you what we were up to and how you can get the best of your trip to this delightful city. Be forewarned though, there are no recommendations on the party places. Here’s a four day itinerary for Prague, by and large tracing what we did. 

Day 1 – Walking Tour, Old Town Square

Sandeman’s walking tour

It’s a good idea to get your bearings around the major sites of Prague with a Free walking tour to kick-start your trip. I took the Sandeman’s walking tour with an Aussie guide which was well organised and informative. It was fun getting an informed outsider’s perspective on the city. Even if you tip generously (€ 5 would be considered very reasonable), you end up paying much less than the paid tours. the tour touches the must-sees and is peppered with interesting information and anecdotes.  

Old Town Square

This is the nerve centre of Prague for tourists. The beautiful spires of the Tyn Church dominate the skyline of Old Town Square and the statue of protestant reformer Jan Hus sits in the centre of the square.  

Evening sun rays on Tyn Church spires

The astronomical clock dating back from 1410 is one of the most visited attractions in Prague and also one of its most over-hyped. The fact that a clock built six centuries ago is still in operation is doubtless marvellous but there is nothing for the visitor to really see.

Astronomical Clock
Klementinium Baroque Library (Image Credits boredpanda.com)

Head instead to the Klementinium Library, one of Prague’s lesser known gems. Its Baroque reading hall is touted as the most beautiful library in the world. It certainly was the most otherworldly library I have set eyes on with its centuries old globes and book racks and the majestic fresco on the ceiling. How anyone could get any reading done in this hauntingly beautiful setting is beyond me. The ascent up to the astronomical clock tower offers great views of the city. Tickets cost 300 CZK/€12 (approx.) including the price of guided tours in English commencing every half hour.


 For me the highlight of Old Town was the Trdelnik a pastry made of grilled rolled dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. It is transformed from delicious to heavenly when filled up with ice-cream & Nutella. It’s known in Hungary as Chimney cake and has originated in Romania. Sceptics say it’s not a traditional Czech dish and has proliferated with mass tourism when something is this delicious, who cares!

Day 2 – Jewish Quarter, Charles Bridge

Spanish Synagogue

The visit to the Jewish quarter was undoubtedly the most moving part of our trip. Staring at the names of thousands of innocent Jews who were mass murdered under the Nazi occupation and the gravestones jostling for space in the solitary Jewish cemetery in Prague is enough make the most stoic well up. Hitler only spared the important Jewish monuments of Prague because he planned to preserve this is as a monument to the race he had every intention of wiping out from Europe.

Names of 78,000 victims on the walls of Pinkas Synagogue

The Jewish Quarter is a cluster of Synagogues and other Jewish heritage sites. The Synagogues are all very different from each other. The Spanish Synagogue will blow you away with the rich and intricate art inside, the Pinkas synagogue will move you with the reminder of the anti-semitic purge under the Nazis, the Klausen Synagogue has Jewish relics that can be your introduction to Jewish culture and the Old New Synagogue (which I skipped) is the oldest surviving Synagogue said to house the remains of the mythical Golem. The Cemetery is also certainly worth the visit. The attached museum sheds light on the Jewish customs related to the last rites.

Jewish Cemetery

Entry to all these monuments is covered by a single ticket that costs CZK 530 (€ 20.50). A discounted version covering everything apart from the Old-New Synagogue comes for CZK 350 (€13.50) and is better value for money. Details here.

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

The most iconic image of Prague is that of Karluv Most or Charles Bridge with its 2 sides lined with statues. The legendary bridge dating back to the 15th Century to the 15th Century was constructed by the most revered of Prague’s rulers, Charles IV and is adorned with 30 statues. Wikipedia has basic information on the statues and referring to it while you walk past them will help you see them as something more than beautiful works of art. The bridge makes for a great stroll any time of the day. Mornings are good for leisurely walks. In the evening Charles Bridge is abuzz with a carnival-like atmosphere that makes for great people watching. Turn up later at night to admire a lit up castle district from this vantage point.  

Day 3 – Day trip to Cesky Krumlov

If you have just 4 days for Czech Republic, one of them must be set aside for Cesky Krumlov. You can’t come to Prague and not go to the fairy tale town of Cesky Krumlov. 

Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov’s sits on a bend in the Vltava river and oozes with oodles of charm. The Old Town is a pedestrian zone with cobble stoned winding streets, baroque houses, souvenir shops with the prettiest of collectibles and beautiful restaurants serving traditional Czech fare with views to die for.  The medieval castle is the top draw for admirers of history and architecture. Even the less historically inclined should climb up to the castle grounds and soak in the postcard worthy views of this quaint town. It is one of those places where you just can’t stop smiling once you are there. You won’t go there with a checklist of things to tick off. But you will doubtless come back happy in the knowledge that such a place exists. That you can step into a fairy tale for a while if you crave it bad.     

Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov is well connected by trains as well as buses. We took the direct train out at 8 am and got there by 11. You can book the tickets here. For the return leg, we used Regiojet which has almost hourly connections with spacious seats, personal entertainment systems and complimentary Wifi and coffee on board.

There are several other worthy and convenient day trips if you are spending longer in Prague. The spa town of Karlovy Vary that also houses the famed Moser Glassworks factory is very popular. As is the Ossuary at Kutna Hora with its church made of human skeletons. But if you have just a day to spare, spend it in Cesky Krumlov.

Day 4 – Castle District

The Prague Castle is the highlight for most first time visitors to the city with the panoramic views of the city from the castle grounds and the magnificent Gothic Cathedral of St Vitus. It is among the largest castles in the world and also the residence of the Czech president.

St Vitus Cathedral

I had done a trip of the interiors on my last visit to Prague a few years back and chose this time to laze around the palace grounds and enjoy the magnificent views of the city below.

The guards at the castle gate are forbidden from expressing any emotions and are akin to wax statues. The changing of guards provides a nice photo opportunity. The St Vitus Cathedral is a very impressive structure and its stained glass windows are majestic. But to make better sense of the historic, cultural and religious significance of the castle, a guide or at least an audio guide is highly recommended. 

Letna Park

We spent our last few hours in Prague lounging at Letna Park. It’s a vast expanse of greens located on a hilltop next to the left bank of the Vltava river. It has beer gardens, gelaterias and breath-taking views of the city on the other side of the river. If you want to get away from the touristy side of Prague and spend some time watching the locals unwind, this is where you need to come. Sunsets here are the best! This is where we called it a night on our last day in Prague.

View from Letna Park

When to go?

Anytime. Seriously, anytime. But some months are better than other. July-August are European school summer holidays and Prague gets very crowded. The winters are rather chilly for my liking. May-June and Sept-Oct are good shoulder seasons to do Prague, combining good weather and fewer people.  

Where to stay?

Our Airbnb in the Jewish quarter was very conveniently located and placed us within walking distance of everywhere we wanted to go in Prague. I would highly recommend putting up somewhere in the Old Town, if not in the Jewish Quarter itself. It can get a little crowded but you can cover most of Prague’s attractions on foot from here.  

What to Eat?

Czech Goulash

Czech food was not haute but very hearty. It was my kind of unpretentious good food. The Czech Goulash (different from Hungarian Goulash), is probably the most famous Czech dish. It’s beef in a brown gravy with a side of bread dumplings called knedilky. When done right, Czech potato soup is also delightful. For me the winner was Trdelink, referenced earlier in the article.

How are the people there?

To be honest, I felt the Czechs could do with a little more of smiling. I mean its good exercise for the jaws. There’s a lot of discussion on travel forums about the general demeanour of Czechs. The service at restaurants was efficient but can hardly be called warm. The supermarket cashiers seemed to be doing me a favour by letting me buy from them. While I detest sweeping generalisations myself, I found the Hungarians and Slovenians to be much friendlier as a rule.

I guess every culture is unique and some are just more disposed to smiling and mingling than others. There was no untoward incident and we were never spoken to rudely, but a general warmth from the locals does add a lot to any travel experience which I found missing in the Czech Republic.  Some of our previous travels abroad – notably to France and Bali- have been made memorable by some very warm hearted people we met. I can’t really speak in the same vein about the Czechs.

Useful Resource

An extremely useful resource for practical information is the Honest Prague Guide YouTube channel. Highly recommend catching their videos on getting into town, changing money and using public transport. I saved myself a lot of trouble (and money!) by using their tips. 

Final Word

Prague has it all. Architectural grandeur, fascinating history and culture, nightlife & great cuisine. Prague makes you wonder how a city could be so incredibly beautiful and well kept. I thought Paris was the prettiest city around but I am not exaggerating when I say Prague can give it a run for its money. It is about sitting on café tables and watching tourists flow by, delighting in the fact that you have nowhere to go and there is nowhere else you would rather be. Don’t go there to tick off any attractions. Go there to feel the feeling of being in Prague. It’s magical. You will love it.

World’s longest zip-line: the newest addition to Dubai’s must-do list

There are some places that you instantly fall in love with. There are some which grow on you with time. And then there is Dubai. I have tremendous admiration for the rulers of Dubai who transformed the desolate desert into a premier global business and tourism hotspot. But Dubai, at least going by my first encounter with it, is not my kind of city. Not for me the opulence of never-ending malls, cloud-kissing skyscrapers and artificial islands. I would rather embrace the warmth of a Hanoi, vibrancy of a Bangkok or the sheer chaotic energy of Mumbai.

That said, the trip to Dubai was not without some high points. I admired how, despite being a melting pot of people drawn from so many nationalities, the city functioned like clockwork. I was blown away by the futuristic infrastructure – very few big cities can claim to have a future-ready urban infrastructure.

Dubai Creek
Dubai Creek

I loved the walking along the banks of the Dubai Creek and crossing it on the local boat while admiring the mindboggling ethnic diversity of my fellow passengers. I found bliss is the amazing Sheesha in the joints in Al Ghubaiba lining Dubai Creek. While I am not a big fan of malls, the Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai Mall is quite simply the largest collection of books I have seen under one roof and it was my version of Disneyland. I quite enjoyed taking cab rides from Pakistani drivers and eating in Pakistani restaurants though not without lamenting that this might be the closest I’ll get to experiencing that forbidden land.

But the highlight of the trip undoubtedly was heading out of Dubai to the Jebel Jais mountain in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah and experiencing the longest zip-line in the world. But I’ll come to that in a bit.

Hostel in Dubai

The Dubai trip got underway with a stay in Dubai Backpacker Hostel, located near Burjuman in the older part of the town. It was to be my first ever taste of a backpacker hostel and I was super excited. And it didn’t disappoint. The start wasn’t great though. I was welcomed into the room with a mild stench of sweat, the sight of a bunch of shabbily dressed strangers lying on their bunks and the news that the air conditioner in our room was out of order. I took a deep breath, told myself that I would take things in my stride and enquired about the party scene in the hostel. The manager directed me to the kitchen.

The group seated there was a collection of some really colourful, easygoing and warm bunch of people drawn from many different nationalities. There were people who had made the hostel their home for months together and there were people there spending just a night. There were Dubai veterans initiating Dubai virgins in discovering the pleasures of the city. We had everything from friendly small talk to intellectual banter and passionate discourse on morality. Within an hour, I was felt I was meeting long lost friends and not perfect strangers!

The hostel was sparkling clean. Burjuman, where the hostel is located falls on both the Red line and the Green line which makes for cheap commuting. I can strongly recommend it for solo travellers or groups of friends, both male and female, as long as you don’t mind some adventures. At less than $25 a night for a bed including breakfast, this was a steal.

Old Dubai

The next morning, nursing a slight hangover, I made my way to explore the Gold & Spice Souks of Old Dubai. In my fantasy, the souks of old Dubai were open markets with traders from all over the world assembled to sell everything from exotic food to ancient curios and magical lamps. That is what my recollections from my childhood reading of Arabian Nights had led me to believe.  Alas, I was in for some disappointment. The market was an array of glass and concrete stores, much like you would find anywhere else. The collection of spices, dry fruits and incense though was impressive.

Dubai Spice Souk
Spices from the world over make their way to Dubai

After indulging in some shopping, I took one of the local boats that ferry you across the Creek for AED 1 ($ 0.25!!!) only. On the other side is Bur Dubai. Bur Dubai is the historic part of the city housing the Al Bastakiya historic area and the Dubai Museum. It is a lovely place for a short stroll. The prices on this side of the creek are significantly lower. It’s a good idea to buy spices, dry fruits or souvenirs here rather than at the spice souk (where at hindsight, I got ripped off). Even so, you must compare prices at several stores and bargain hard to get a good deal.

Old Dubai
Old Dubai

The Sheesha joints lining the creek at Al-Ghubaiba are as good a place as any to cap off your day in Dubai. The breeze is pleasant and the sheesha is strong and flavourful. While watching the dhows (boats) gently cruising along the creek, I began to feel that Dubai wasn’t so bad after all.

Zip-lining in Ras Al Khaimah

The following day was to be the highlight of the trip. It was time for some adrenaline rush at the brand new Zip-line opened in Jebel Jais in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. Jebel Jais is the tallest mountain in the UAE and the closest I have been to a lunar landscape. The zip-line is Guinness certified as the longest (2.83km long) in the world and has opened to the public only on 31st January 2018. We were among the first 1000 people to be experiencing what is sure to become a globally renowned adventure destination in the days to come. But being a trailblazer also comes with its challenges.

The first challenge was booking the experience. The online booking site is not easily discoverable. The zip line is operated by Toro Verde and here’s the link to the booking site. There is another zip line in Jabel Jais operated by Via Ferrata but it’s a much shorter one.

The tickets are priced at AED 650 ($ 180) at present. After booking online, we received a confirmation with the guidelines. There was a link to a map which marks the parking area for Toro Verde. From there they operate the shuttles to their office and the launch pad. The place is almost 60 km from RAK city so budget sufficient time to get there. It took us close to four hours to get there from Dubai. After driving on through the deserted mountains for what seemed liked eternity, we finally arrived. The naked mountains are breathtakingly beautiful in their own way.

Jebel Jais mountauns
Hauntingly beautiful Jebel Jais

To get there you can take a bus from Dubai to Ras al Khaimah and a cab from there to the zip lining spot in Jebel Jais. Buses leave every 1.5 hrs from Dubai’s Union Square bus stop for Ras al Khaimah. Hourly buses also depart Al Jubail bus stand in Sharjah for RAK city. The taxi from RAK city cost about AED 1.5 per km which means you will pay ~100 AED (~$30) for a drop off to the Toro Verde parking lot. Note that there is no provision for return transport so it would be a good idea to ask the cabbie to wait which he will do for a waiting charge.

Zip-lining at Ras al Khaimah
Zip-lining at Ras al Khaimah

Upon reaching there, adrenaline kicked in. A team of experts from Puerto Rico will brief you about the flight and fit you up with the requisite gear. The feeling when you plunge headfirst into the abyss with the intense winds gushing against you at tremendous speeds is electrifying, to say the least. The view below, with barely a soul in sight and rugged barren mountains as far as the eyes can see, is majestic and haunting at once. This is the stuff legendary Go-Pro videos are made of. Alas, I didn’t have one. This was the closest I had ever come to actually flying. I couldn’t help but fantasize what it would possibly be like if I were ever to be miraculously granted that superpower.

The zip-line flight doesn’t require any great physical agility or fitness. It can be undertaken by pretty much anyone who is not afraid of heights (or is at least willing to fight the fear). This was sure to be an experience that would stay on in my memory for a long time.

Jebel Jais
Jebel Jais

After the exploits at the Jebel Jais, I made a brief stop at the beach in Ras Al Khaimah. It’s a nice, clean beach drawing a mix of locals and tourists. Don’t expect turquoise waters or powder white sand.  But it’s as good as a place as any in the Emirates to watch the sun go down.

Sunset at Ras al Khaimah beach
Sunset at Ras al Khaimah beach

Humour me a little for I can’t end the story of the Dubai trip without a word about the Pakistani friends we made. I found Pakistani drivers to be full of humour and hospitality. They were very vocal in expressing their liking for Indian cricketers and artists and actually Indian people in general. Meeting so many of them reinforced my belief. The purported hatred is just fanned by politicians on both sides to justify their actions. It is not a reflection of the average citizen’s emotions.

The younger ones rue the day they got lured into coming to Dubai because they miss their families and the familiar warmth of their homeland. But once they get used to earning in Dirhams, it becomes virtually impossible to go back to the simpler lives in their villages. The needs and wants expand fast to match the increased earnings. The older ones, some of whom have spent decades in Dubai, have made peace with this life. They just feel happy that the income generated from their hardships here means folks back home are well provided for.

I have to say, Dubai did start growing on me by the end of the trip. Maybe it didn’t have a culture of its own, but the mish-mash of migrant cultures was also worth experiencing.

The Hanoi Travelogue

Sometimes, in your travels, you get lucky. Like when you visit a mountain view-point on a clear day and soak in the first rays of sun over mesmerizing snow-capped peaks. Or like my friend who booked a bed in a four bedded mixed dorm in Negombo, Sri Lanka and ended up staying with three free-spirited French girls. For me, it was landing up in Hanoi on the day when the underdog U-23 soccer team of Vietnam won the semi-finals of the U-23 AFC championship after inflicting a shock defeat on Qatar. The city erupted in frenzy and I got a taste of what it means to be a Vietnamese.

On our trip to Vietnam in January this year, we spent 3 days in the capital Hanoi.  We saw very few of the touristy sites in Hanoi except those around the Hoan Kiem lake. We gave the venerable Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum a miss. Neither could we make time for Hanoi Citadel or the One Pillar Pagoda. No doubt these places must have been well worthy of visits. They don’t feature on every tourist itinerary for no reason. But I have no regrets. We invested our time in experiencing the racing pulse of the city and its people as it got engulfed in football mania. After all, the museums and pagodas would always be around. Something of this magnitude doesn’t happen every day in a country’s sporting history. But more on that later.

We split our four-night stay between the Old Quarter and the Hoan Kiem lake area. The lake is the epicentre of all activity in Hanoi. To the north of it lies the Old Quarter dating back to the imperial times with its famed 36 Streets. To the lake’s east is the French Quarter with grand buildings and broad boulevards that are remnants of Vietnam’s French colonial past. The lake itself is abuzz with locals and tourists alike spending some quiet time amidst serenity.

Things to see in Hanoi

Some essential Hanoi experiences that we did manage to fit in included the Ngoc Son temple in the middle of the Hoan Kiem lake, the Thang Long Water Puppet show and the Bach Ma temple. We also made time for some leisurely strolls around the narrow alleys of Old Quarter and the wide boulevards of the French Quarter. It is difficult to believe that these two very distinct zones, separated by no more than a couple of kilometres, are part of the same city. Here’s the lowdown.

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre 

Experience a uniquely Vietnamese Performing Art

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Legend of the Restored Sword depicted through Water Puppets

The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is the best place in Vietnam to enjoy the Vietnamese folk art of water puppetry. Water puppetry was born of the river delta farmer’s need for entertaining himself when his paddy fields were flooded in the rainy season. Over time it has been developed into a fine art. It will appear like simple, childlike entertainment until you try to visualise what the puppeteers standing waist deep in the water behind the curtains must be doing to accomplish the coordination on the stage (read water puddle).

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Intricate Water Puppetry

The show depicts life in the agrarian countryside and folktales of Northern Vietnam including the legend of the Sword Lake. There are water spewing and fire-breathing dragons and friendly neighbourhood mythical birds thrown in for good measure. The tickets are priced at VND 100,000 or ~$4.5. Show timings can be found on their website http://thanglongwaterpuppet.org/en/. The website also has interesting details about the origin and evolution of the art over the last ten centuries. I strongly recommend making this a part of your Hanoi plans.

Schedule this towards the end of your visit in Hanoi. Book tickets for the show from the counter as soon as you arrive. Tickets often sell out a couple of days in advance, especially for the weekend shows. If you have the choice, try to get seats in the front for a better experience.

Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple

Feel the Pulse of Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi Vietnam
Fun and games near Hoan Kiem Lake (Pic Courtesy: Moulika Mukherjee)

Hoan Kiem Lake is unmistakeably the heart of Hanoi. It’s an oval-shaped lake having a perimeter of just about 2km with a paved walkway all around. In the mornings, droves of people can be seen doing Tai Chi or taking morning walks. Throughout the day you will see locals and tourists alike flock to the lake. It is a fantastic place to just laze and people watch.

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi Vietnam
This guy was playing Jianzi (foot shuttlecock) with the grace of a ballerina


During the weekend evenings, the street around is closed to traffic and the entire area dons the look of a carnival. There are parents strolling with kids in tow, youngsters playing Jianzi or foot shuttlecock, beat-boxing and ball dancing competitions being held and delicious street food being peddled. A lovely market in the evenings on weekends livens up the area bordering the French Quarter.  There are stalls selling pop-up arts, ceramics, fridge and myriad other souvenirs. The beautifully lit up traditional bridge connecting the shore to the Ngoc Son temple adds character to the place. Spend an evening here and you will not stop feeling that this is how life is meant to be.

Hoan Kiem Hanoi Vietnam
The lit up Huc Bridge connecting the Ngoc Son Temple

Ngoc Son Temple stands in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake, connected to the shore by the small but pretty bridge. It is dedicated to a General who defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century and also to Confucian and Taoist philosophers.

Bia Hoi Junction

A taste of Hanoi’s Nightlife

The Bia Hoi Junction is essentially a cluster of bars with outdoor seating located in the old quarter close to the lake. Go there if you want a glimpse of Hanoi’s nightlife. In case you are in two minds, here’s the argument that will resolve it for you. Bia Hoi is light draught beer unique to Vietnam that sells for as little as VND 5000 ($0.25) a glass! Bia Hoi junction is where the locals come to get their fix of this quintessentially Vietnamese brew.

I visited this place on the evening of Vietnam’s semi-final triumph in the U-23 AFC soccer tournament. Everyone in Hanoi and their aunties were there. It is surprising the watering holes didn’t run out of stock. Many party zones around South East Asia like Lang Kwai Fong in Hong Kong or Khao San Road in Bangkok rely on tourists and expats to lend the vide to the place. That’s not true for Bia Hoi Junction which is thriving with locals.

Old Quarter

From the pages of history

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a mesh of streets each of which was populated by traders of a particular kind of article back in colonial times when the place was established. To date, some of the stores still deal in the same trade but many have now switched to catering to needs of a more modern society. The streets bear names such as Hang Ma, Hang Tre and Hang Dong, where ‘Hang’ means a traded article and the following word names the article like Paper, Bamboo or Copper.

Old Quarter Hanoi
Paper artefacts are being sold in Hang Ma for centuries now

If there is just one place you must see in Hanoi, it is the Old Quarter. The diversity of goods on display is so vast, the quality so good and the prices so affordable that I dare you to spend an evening there without shopping. The Old Quarter is also home to many of Hanoi’s tourist attractions like the Bach Ma Temple and One Pillar Pagoda as well as some of Hanoi’s most popular eateries.

French Quarter

A fix for your Paris throwback

Walking along the French Quarter brought back memories of Paris from our trip to France last year.  The Hanoi Opera is modelled on the Opera Garnier in Paris. It is in truth only a shadow of the Paris Opera. The Sofitel Legend Metropole is the granddaddy of Hanoi hotels and dates back to 1901. It is majestic and regal. We made an exception to our budget meals regimen in Hanoi to have breakfast here one morning. The food is superb and the service impeccable. The white tablecloths, fine cutlery and the interior design all loudly invoke the Belle Epoque.

Sofitel Legend Metropole French Quarter
A dose of opulence at the Sofitel Legend Metropole

The fine French buildings make lovely backdrops for some portrait shots. The broad tree-lined streets are a stark contrast to the Old Quarter and are ideal for a leisurely walk.

French Quarter Hanoi Vietnam
French Quarter

A few places that I would have liked to add to our Hanoi itinerary with more time on hand would have been the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison (fondly called Hanoi Hilton by the US PoWs during the Vietnam War). The thing that kept me away from these was partly bad weather and partly the frenzy around Vietnam’s soccer team’s showdown in the AFC U-23 final. And that’s how I spent my last day in Vietnam. I spent less time watching the game and more of it watching the people watching the game!

A Photo-essay of Vietnam’s Football Frenzy

The day we arrived in Hanoi was the day the underdog Vietnamese soccer team inflicted a shock defeat on the much better ranked Qataris in the semi-finals of the AFC U-23 Cup. Within moments, the entire city was on the streets celebrating the victory. The scenes around Hoan Kiem Lake had to be seen to be believed. I felt blessed to be a witness to this grand spectacle. I doubt whether freedom from the French was celebrated with as much fanfare!

Hours before the final, fans started gathering around giant screens installed in various public places for communal viewing of the match. The atmosphere was electric.


Football in Vietnam
A mad scramble for the best seats (sic)

Football in Vietnam
Vietnam Scored!

Football in Vietnam
Anxious moments


Football in Vietnam
Men and women, boys and girls – all out in support

Football in Vietnam
Hanoi is full of colourful people ( Photo Courtesy : Moulika Mukherjee)

Football in Vietnam
Caption this!

It was refreshing to see people cutting across gender, age and social strata assembling together to root for the thing that unites them all – their Vietnamese identity. The Vietnamese team made a valiant effort but ended up on the losing side courtesy a last minute goal by Uzbekistan. But the loss brought to the fore how gracious they were in defeat. What followed that evening was a celebration of Vietnam’s achievement at having made it this far rather than a mourning of the day’s defeat.

Food in Hanoi

Vietnamese cuisine is making waves globally. Before our trip, I had shortlisted some iconic places to sample the most celebrated specimens of Vietnamese cuisine. Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su for Pho, Bun Cha Huong Lien for Bun Cha, Giang Café for Egg Coffee and so on.

Egg Coffee
Dense and delicious Egg Coffee – I like!

On our first evening out in Hanoi, we were famished and we stepped into the first decrepit Pho joint in sight after stepping out of our Airbnb. After the first slurp, I knew there was no need to go hunting for good food in Hanoi. A bowl of Pho costs just about 20,000 -25,000 Dongs (less than $1) and is a riot of flavours. Delicious food is ubiquitous in Hanoi. Just see where the locals are eating and barge in. I am sure the hallowed establishment which are favourably reviewed by critics are excellent. But to sample great Vietnamese there is no need to go hunting for these joints.

Pho Vietnamese Food
Pho – Vietnam’s national dish (Photo Courtesy: Inspired Taste)

Another thing one mustn’t fail to try is Vietnamese Coffee. The local Vietnamese coffee is predominantly Robusta which has more caffeine and is bitter. It is often made with condensed milk which beautifully balances the bitterness and lends a unique taste. Remember, Vietnamese coffee is served cold by default. Be sure to check before you order.

A word of caution for vegetarians – vegetarian Vietnamese food is tough to find. In Hanoi, our saviour was Minh Chay Vegan Restaurant where we kept going to for takeaways for my mother. The menu is extensive, the food is delicious, the prices are reasonable and the locations are central.

My lasting memories of Hanoi will not be of places seen but of people met. Hanoians are a vibrant, colourful and expressive lot who can turn the most touristy of visitors to street photographers. The locals are, the odd freak apart, very friendly and helpful people. It was with a heavy heart that I boarded the flight back. But make no mistake Vietnam, we are not done yet.



Tiger Trails and Beyond in Kanha National Park

Tiger in Kanha NAtional Park

Tiger spotting at Kanha National Park
An Unforgettable Moment

I just got back from a trip to Kanha National  Park with a group of friends and the experience will remain etched in memory forever. It was the first time I sighted a Tiger in the wild and what a sight it was. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

About Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park was created in 1955 and was made a Tiger Reserve in 1973 when Project Tiger was commissioned. Apart from being renowned as one of the best places to spot the big cat, it is also justly famous for its efforts in conserving the hard ground Barasingha. Kanha is the only remaining natural habitat of the Barasingha in the world.

Hard Ground Barasingha at Kanha National PArk
A majestic stag Barasingha – Kanha is the only place in the world to find them!

It can be accessed conveniently through Jabalpur, Raipur and Nagpur. It takes around 3.5 hours by road from Jabalpur, 5 hours from Raipur and 6 hours from Nagpur.  We flew into Nagpur and then drove to Kanha, passing by another one of Madhya Pradesh’s fabulous national parks, Pench, on the way.

Map of Kanha National Park
Map of Kanha National Park (Courtesy: Mapsofindia)

Kanha is roughly divided into five ranges – Kisli, Mukki, Kanha, Supkhar & Bahmnidadar. Supkhar and Bahmanidadar ranges are strictly out of bounds for tourists. Parts of the other three ranges are accessible through Safari vehicles. We stayed at Kisli Log Hut, inside the park area in the Kisli range, courtesy the good offices of a friend connected to the forest department. There are numerous hotels and resorts of varying budgets and quality on the outskirts of the park.

Safaris are open for booking 120 days in advance and sell out very fast. Be sure to book as soon as the booking window opens, even if you decide on your accommodation later. Safaris are available in two slots. Morning Safari begins at sunrise and ends before 11 am. The evening Safari begins at 3 pm and ends before sunset. We managed to fit in four safaris in the course of our two nights stay.

Day 1

A wild boar - an uncelebrated resident!
A wild boar – a rather uncelebrated resident of Kanha!

We had butterflies in our stomachs when we set out for our first safari on the evening we reached. We felt the sheer rush of venturing into the jungle, not knowing what awaited us! Of course, the holy grail would be sighting one of Kanha’s famed tigers. Soon we spotted a Sambar, some Barasinghas, some wild boars and many birds.

A Vulture spotted at Kanha
A Vulture: A very rare sight now due to Diclofenac accumulation

We were already considering it a successful outing when word came in of a tiger that had been spotted in the Mukki range earlier that morning. Our driver sped away to the said spot and sure enough, there were fresh pugmarks.

Tiger Pugmarks at Kanha
Tiger Pugmarks

The time spent chasing the pugmarks, not knowing whether we will be rewarded with a sighting, is loaded with suspense. After trailing the pugmarks for a kilometre or so, we spotted the elusive beast! What a moment it was when I first sighted a tiger in the wild. It is a matter of great fortune and here I was, spotting a tiger on the very evening.

Tiger Sighting at Knaha
First Tiger Sighting at Kanha – Bone Chilling & Exhilarating at once

There were no other safari vehicles around us at that point in time. It was just us and Chhota Munna. It was 15 minutes of unadulterated bliss as we saw him walking on, rubbing himself against bushes and hugging trees to mark his territory. Most people would consider themselves fortunate to get a mere glimpse and here we were, exclusively enjoying his company for a full quarter of an hour. I would be lying if I say that the sheer excitement wasn’t mixed with a little fear but I put complete trust in our driver and guide. After obliging us with sights we will never forget, Chhota Munna made his way into the thickets and we moved on thanking our lucky stars.

Tiger in Kanha NAtional Park
Chhota Munna’s yawn is no less scary than a roar!

After we spotted Chhota Munna, I was overcome with the feeling that I had fulfilled my destiny and could now die in peace. We were heading back to our lodge assuming that we had seen our share of drama for the day.  But we were mistaken. We were still in the meadows of the Kanha range when suddenly the atmosphere became charged with the alarm calls of Cheetals, Langurs and Barasinghas. Every single creature in sight was looking unblinkingly in one direction and making sounds to alert their tribe. And there it was – another tiger – lurking in the meadows. This was clearly more than we had bargained for. There was a moment of tense excitement when it appeared that we might witness a hunt. But after eyeing the pray from a distance for a minute that seemed like an hour, the tiger quietly faded away into the meadow along with the fading light. The deer would live to see another day. We had another story to tell.

An anxious herd of Deer
An Anxious Herd of Deer –  their toes to outrun death

The evening was spent sharing stories, adoring the photographs captured and speculating what Day 2 would bring us.

Day 2

The second day was less eventful but no less enjoyable. Exploring the jungle after having already spotted the tiger is like taking on the world after having attained enlightenment. Not that I have any first-hand experience of what the latter feels like. I guess when you are not hung up on spotting the tiger, you begin to appreciate the other incredible residents of the forest. On the second day, we visited Shravan Tal, a lake which is said to have found mention in the great Indian epic, Ramayana. Dasharatha, the father of Rama, it is said, had mistakenly shot a young boy named Shravan at this spot, thinking him to be a deer. He incurred the wrath of Shravan’s father who had to witness his son died in his arms. The curse eventually became pivotal to the story of the Ramayana.

A male Cheetal tending to itself near Shravan Tal

We also visited a museum which is located close to the entry gate of the Kanha range. It is a small but highly informative museum that captures the history of Kanha National Park, its conservation efforts and interesting details about its residents. The museum screens a documentary which, though dated, is a must watch.  The documentary attempts to sensitise visitors on the nature of challenges faced by the authorities in conserving the forests and the wildlife it shelters. Particularly telling is the plight of the beat guards who patrol the jungle on foot to guard its residents against pernicious human activities. They live under basic conditions in extreme isolation. Every time they go out on their beats, they run the risk of being attacked by the very tigers they are out to protect! The entry gate of the Kanha range is made by putting together fallen antlers of deer and is a sight to behold.

Gate of Kanha Range Made of Fallen Antlers
Gate of Kanha Range Made of Fallen Antlers

Along with numerous Cheetals, Barasinghas, Bisons and wild boars, we also spotted many birds. The birds we saw included Jungle Babbler, Indian Roller, Parakeets (Alexandrine, Rose-ringed & Plum-headed), Red Wattled Lapwing, Coppersmith Barbet, Greater Flame-back woodpecker, Common Hoopoe, Greater Racket Tailed Drongo and even a Vulture. The budding bird watcher in me had a gala time.

Indian Roller
Indian Roller

The tigers eluded us on Day 2 but we weren’t complaining. We spent the evening star gazing.

Day 3

The next day was to be the last of our trip and we all got ready ahead of time so as to not miss a minute of our final safari. We were all hoping for one last glimpse of the tiger on our final day to end the trip on a high. And we were not disappointed! We hadn’t got any scent of a tiger till midway through our safari when we happened to cross a jeep that informed us that Munna had been spotted close by. Our driver immediately sprang into action and off we went on one last chase.

And sure enough, after reaching the designated spot, Munna made an appearance for us, albeit a brief one. It was indeed poetic that the trip that had begun with sighting Chhota Munna ended with meeting his father, Munna, on the last day. There was absolutely nothing more we could have asked for. We turned back towards the guest house and then onwards to Nagpur.

We carried back all the non-biodegradable trash we had generated because, understandably, there aren’t proper waste disposal systems in the jungle and all trash is incinerated. These little things go a long way in preserving the jungles we love so much.

Sunset at Kanha National Park
Au Revoir, not Adieu


I can’t possibly end the story of my trip to Kanha National Park without a word about the guides and drives who take tourists on the safari. They do not just show you around. They go out of their way and try their best to treat you to a big cat sighting. Seeing the tiger defines the jungle experience for many tourists and they are well aware of that. The seasoned drivers and guides spot pugmarks and follow alarm calls of prey to guide tourists to a glimpse of the elusive giant. Just the thrill of the chase is half the fun. The guides know the family tree of the 100 or so tigers inhabiting Kanha at least as well as their own family tree. They can instantly recognise tigers by observing their body stripes. They are extremely proud of the forest they serve and make every effort to ensure all visitors leave happy.

We most certainly left happy. The long drive back to Nagpur was spent reminiscing the many memorable moments from the trip. Two days away from cellular connectivity within the confines of the forest were rejuvenating. The myriad revelations of the jungle were humbling and inspiring. I vowed to come back soon to catch up on my quota of fresh air and dose of sanity.

The Mighty Jungle
The Mighty Jungle

My humble advice to all visitors is to come without expectations of spotting the Tiger. Too many visits to Tiger Reserves are defined by the sighting or otherwise of Tigers. There are enough wonders in the jungle. Let the tiger sighting be an icing on the cake if you get lucky, but do not forget to enjoy the cake itself.

Chhota Munna Tiger walking away at Kanha NAtional Park
Until Next Time

Travelling with Infants – Why it’s an excellent idea!

Travelling with an infant
Look who’s the most excited about the trip!

As I was planning our family trip to Vietnam next month, the memories of our first trip abroad with our daughter, 6 months earlier, came back to mind.

Making up our minds

But first, let’s rewind to 2015. Moumita, my wife, had never been outside Asia. My own travel outside Asia was limited to a 3 day trip to Prague – a quasi- official trip. So it was with tremendous anticipation that we were planning our first Eurotrip. The idea was to go backpacking through Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris & Berlin. Stay in the hippest hostels, hit the trendiest bars and lose ourselves in the streets. And that was when we learnt that our life was about to change forever. We forgot all about the Eurotrip and started looking forward to the arrival of our child instead!

And in September 2016, we were blessed with Nyra. Travel, especially foreign travel, slipped completely out of our thoughts as we grappled with the challenges and basked in the unbridled joys of parenthood.

Until one day a couple of months later, a friend, an expert deal hunter, informed me of a flight deal that could get us to Paris from Mumbai and back for 18k ($275). That’s less than half of what you would normally expect to pay. My initial reaction was to envy the lucky dog who was not only going to Paris but going there for throwaway prices. Even the idea of travelling with Nyra in tow didn’t cross my mind.

But then I thought about it. And then I thought some more. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that we were letting go of this unexpected kindness of the travel gods. To my surprise, for every argument against travelling with an infant, I could come up with an equally compelling counter agreement. Just one sobering thought. The plans of taking the party scene in Western Europe by storm might have to make way for slow travel around France. We just couldn’t do justice to Amsterdam while travelling with an infant! We had to decide immediately as the deal was valid for just one day. And that night, we booked!

And then began a phase of painstaking planning. But I am one of those for whom planning and anticipating a trip is even more pleasurable than the trip itself.

Travelling with an infant
Nyra supervised the packing

We understood that the itinerary would be dictated by a lot more our travel preferences. To start with, high altitudes were completely ruled out. In fact, any place that could potentially be too cold was best avoided. Beaches won’t be fun as one of us would have to keep a watch on Nyra when the other went dipping. Most live performances wouldn’t allow infants. We would look like nut cases if we went to discos with the baby. Maybe the trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But we could still see the Notre Dame and take the Seine cruise. We could still gape at the Loire Valley chateaus and get our fix of lakeside bliss in the French Alps. We could still spend a night at the other-worldly Mont Saint Michel. We could still stuff ourselves with fine French cuisine and polish off some French wine. There was still more than enough to see and do and we were still spoilt for choice. And France with its efficient public transport system & wheelchair friendly sidewalks would be easy to navigate. Soon the days of anticipation were over it was time to board our Air France flight for what would surely be the trip of a lifetime.

Travelling with an infant
All set to take off – so far so good!

A roller coaster ride

We spent the first leg of the trip in the Normandy region. It wasn’t a smooth beginning. Nyra had hardly slept on the overnight flight and wasn’t her usual cheery self right from the time we landed. She was barely eating anything, crying more than usual and clinging to her mother throughout. We had failed to appreciate how big a change it would be for her. Seeing her in this state made us acutely aware of our somewhat selfish decision to travel and we were already having guilt pangs.

Our third day in Normandy was a day trip to the D-Day landing beaches. Till now, Nyra showed no signs of enjoying her Eurotrip and our spirits were very low. So much so that we had half considered heading back to India cutting short the trip. On our way to Omaha beach, our guide from Bayeux Shuttle informed us that it was very rare to have Indian visitors on the trip. Most visitors came from Britain, US or Canada – countries whose troupes were involved in the landings at the beaches. It was also extremely rare to have families travelling with infants. It was the first time ever that an Indian family with an infant was travelling to these sites with them! I won’t claim that this didn’t make us proud.

When we got off the minivan to explore the German bunkers at Pont du Hoc, the sun was shining brightly. Nyra had woken up happy after a nap on the way. We were beginning to feel that we had turned a corner. Midway through our exploration, it started raining. The light drizzle quickly grew into a heavy downpour. We were on a tight schedule and waiting out the rains in the shade was not an option. I ran while trying to push Nyra’s stroller through dirt tracks that had now become muddy. She was drenched and wailing furiously. She was seriously scared and kept crying inconsolably. We had hit rock bottom.

It took us a long time to calm her and seat her down in the car seat for the return journey. We were giving apologetic looks to our co-passengers but they were more than understanding. In fact, we got a lot of encouragement for our bravery (we thought it was foolhardiness). Some of them recounted tales of how they brought up their own kids back in the day. Travelling from an early age, they said, wires kids to grow up into adaptable human beings.

Slowly, things started getting better as the trip went along. Nyra began settling into a somewhat regular sleep & meal pattern. She even began to actively enjoy the new sights and sounds. It would take her a little time to adjust and we would slow down further. We decided that we had to take things in our stride and make the best of the trip. We began figuring out hacks to make life simpler. Pushing her around in the stroller to make her fall asleep was a prerequisite for an enjoyable dinner – far more than the chef’s wares. Failing that, we went to restaurants with high chairs for babies and sat her down with a piece of bread or some fries. That kept her occupied while we had a peaceful dinner.

Travelling with an infant
We made many friends – all courtesy Nyra

The French are often portrayed as somewhat cold and unfriendly and even uptight. In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. We were bowled over by the warmth of the French people. Nyra was often the conversation starter. Co-passengers on trains, neighbours in restaurants and even random passers-by on streets would often remark on how cute she is and how it was very brave of us to come half-way across the world with her to a new country. We would shrug off the compliments overtly but do a mental high five every time.

Our Airbnb hosts went out of the way to help make the stay comfortable for Nyra. Aurelian, who hosted us in Vernon, actually borrowed a baby cot from a neighbour and dragged it up 3 flights of stairs for us. In Amboise Lucas and Micheline had kept milk, bananas and baby food handy, in case we needed it after checking in late in the evening.

Travelling with an infant
Lucas & Micheline – fabulous hosts and amazing human beings

Every time we took the Paris Metro, we had someone volunteering to help us carry Nyra’s stroller up or down the flight of stairs. Even at the busiest of times. It has been my experience that it is the people in a place who define your views about a place. The most breathtaking places are not enjoyable if the people are not friendly.


Visiting France was also a lesson in knowing how the French are bringing up their kids while ensuring that they continue to lead their individual lives. We saw mothers jogging with baby strollers and cycling uphill with a baby in tow.

The three-week trip was a godsend for our father-daughter bonding. It is one thing to spend time with her after office and on weekends. It’s quite another to be constantly with her for three full weeks. We knew Nyra would make no memories of this epic trip. But we sure did. We made it a point to capture tons of photographs of the places we visited for Nyra to see later. And she will have bragging rights for life for having seen the Eiffel tower before she turned one.

Now, six months later, the first thing she does after waking up is to point her fingers towards the door, urging us to take her out for a stroll. We don’t know if that trip when she was 8 months had any role in making her an outdoorsy kid. We never will. But we like to believe so!

Round up with Pro tips – 9 tips to make things easier for you

Travelling with an infant
The bassinet seat is a godsend


# 1 Book the Bassinet Seats: Most aircraft/airlines will have limited bassinet seats. Do an online check-in as soon as the window opens and book one. That ensures that both you and your baby sleep well on a long flight and arrive fresh as daisies for your holiday.

# 2 Stay at an Airbnb:  We prefer staying in Airbnbs over hotels, hands down. You have access to microwaves to warm the baby food and washing machines to do your laundry (hence escape packing too many baby clothes). But the biggest reason of all is that if you rent an entire place, you can put the baby to sleep and get some time to yourselves in another room.

# 3 Take it slow: One thing that’s definitely out of the equation is hurricane trips. Every attraction will take more time to see with the baby than it would otherwise. Budget for it. There could be things that you cannot do with the baby. Your partner might have to babysit while you climb to the top of a tower and then you will return the favour. In effect, you will take twice as long to get done there.

# 4 Set your expectations right: Babies don’t care much about your itinerary. They may develop a foul mood out of nowhere and throw you off your plans. Be prepared to miss seeing a few things you had planned. Remind yourself that the alternative to travelling like this is not travelling at all. And that’s not really an option, is it?

# 5 Pack smart: Split the baby essentials between your check-in and carry-on luggage. This ensures that you have emergency supplies in the unlikely event of baggage loss. Keep the number of pieces of luggage to a minimum.

# 6 Renting Car Seats: Read local regulations on the use of car seats. It is not enough to simply have one. Western countries have specifications that the car seats need to conform to. In France, car seats are not required for travel by Taxi or bus but are required for rented cars and minivans. Renting the car seat locally may turn out to be more convenient. Check options online prior to travel.

# 7 Carry spare clothes for day outings: Handling kids is messy. If you are out for a day that you want to end with a dinner at a chic restaurant or a visit to some high-end shopping galleries, make sure you carry a change of clothes for yourself. You don’t want to be walking in with a stained dress.

# 8 Making Dinner Plans: Chose a place where you will feel comfortable. We steadfastly avoided fine dining. Infants will be noisy. You don’t want to spend dinnertime on a guilt trip for being an inconvenience to others. Try putting your baby to sleep before you head for dinner or at the very least book a place with a high chair. Infants are curious. And they love eating what they see adults eating. If you can seat them down with some bite-sized portions of your food, you might have a real shot at a peaceful meal.

Travelling with an infant
High chairs at meal times = Happy baby, happy mommy

# 9 Just take the damn trip: Infants fly free! Travelling with kids isn’t going to be any easier until they grow much older. Nor will the kids be making any memories until they turn at least 5. So travel more while the concessional rates still apply. Once you have made the trip, you will always look back on it fondly. You will likely forget the niggling issues soon but will always remember the lovely memories you made.

Travelling with an infant
Making memories

Please add to the tips from your own experiences in the comment section below and feel free to ask questions if you planning to travel soon.

5 Essential Bangkok Experiences

Bangkok things to do Grand Palace

Bangkok means many things to many people. It can be a spiritual haven, a racy playground, a foodie’s dream or a shopper’s Mecca. It can be pretty much anything you want it to be and more. At the cost of sounding clichéd, Bangkok is truly a city that offers something to everybody. I went there with my wife and mother so I’ll let you guess what I was looking for from the trip.

There is no dearth of literature on “Things to do in Bangkok”. Most articles are full of recommendations on the temples to visit – of both the spiritual and carnal kind. Of course, the major temples – Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha, located inside the Grand Palace) and Wat Arun are all fabulous and worth your time. Bangkok also offers the entire spectrum of shopping experiences – from high-end malls like Siam Paragon to street shopping in the Chatuchak market.  But in this short piece, I am going to call out the five things that defined Bangkok for me and made it different from any city I have ever visited.

#1 of Things to do in Bangkok- Chao Phraya Cruise

things to do in Bangkok Chao Phraya Cruise
Chao Phraya Cruise

We started our Bangkok trip with a ferry ride on the Chao Phraya river on the evening of our arrival in the city. There’s nothing like the ferry ride to get your bearings in the city and for the first glimpse of some of the popular attractions.

There are several options for a ride on Chao Phraya – from luxury dinner cruises to hopping on board the ferries that locals use for their daily commute. The local ferry ride costs between 10-30 Baht. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but we went for the local ferry and found it to be amazing value for money. After all, Wat Arun looks the same from onboard a luxury cruise and a local boat! It was also the Thai Queen’s birthday and the sky was peppered with fireworks. It made the experience doubly special.

#2 of Things to do in Bangkok- Rooftop Bars

things to do in Bangkok Rooftop Bar Octave Bar
Rooftop view from Octave Bar

Bangkok is full of these. If you are a fan of cityscapes and dazzling city lights, you should definitely put one of these on your itinerary. The highest of them is simply called The Rooftop Bar at Baiyoke Sky Hotel. The Sky Bar at lebua at State Tower, where the hit Hollywood flick Hangover 2 was shot, is arguably the most popular one. It’s a very difficult job selecting between more than 20 available options. I found this site very useful in picking the right one for us.  It has almost the entire list and could make your job easier (or tougher!)

We chose Octave Bar located on the 45th Floor of Marriot Hotel in the Sukhumvit area. The bar is spread over three levels and each floor has a very different vibe to it. Head to the top floor for 360-degree views of the Bangkok skyline, something that not many rooftop bars offer. We loved the food and mocktails and absolutely adored the views. From the plethora of options available, I recommend choosing one that fits your budget and is close to a location that you would be visiting anyway.

#3 of Things to do in Bangkok- Khao San Road

things to do in Bangkok Khao San Road
Assorted Insects – For your eyes only? Maybe not!

Khao San Road is backpacker central. It is full of budget guesthouses and hotels drawing foreign travellers by the droves. The evening spent in Khao San Road was an undoubted highlight of our Bangkok trip. The street is lined with pubs on both sides and the pavements are choc a block with street food vendors, beer sellers, massage parlours, souvenir shops and the like.  Whatever you are buying, be sure to bargain. It is not frowned upon. In fact, it is expected.

The place has a vibe that’s hard to match. The best time to hit Khao San Road is after 11 in the night when the place is full of partygoers.

Khao San Road also has carts selling fried insects as delectable snacks to go with your beer. If you are sane (like my wife), then you can simply photograph the wares by paying 10 Baht. If you are more of a daredevil (like me) then you could try a fried scorpion or two and get the photo for free.

things to do in Bangkok Khao San Road
Yours truly conquering fears and biting into a Scorpion!

#4 of Things to do in Bangkok- Thai Massage at Wat Pho

The term “Thai Massage” has been much maligned. The original Thai massage, as practised at the Wat Pho Traditional Message Centre is a unique experience. Expect no frills. Don’t go in expecting to be pampered. The massage happens in a communal environment where you are simply made to lie down in your own clothes or in a loose-fitting robe.

The well-trained masseuses will apply very strong pressure and stretch many of your muscles you didn’t know you had. The massage is painful but the rejuvenation it provides as you walk out is divine. We did this on our last day in Bangkok, after having walked the streets for three days. We walked in with aching bodies and walked out feeling as fresh as we ever had.

The traditional Thai massage for an hour costs 420 Baht as of November 2017. Other options include facial massage, foot massage or massage with oils. Refer to their website for the latest details. The place gets a lot of clients so be prepared to wait.

#5 of Things to do in Bangkok – Street Food  

things to do in Bangkok Street Food Mango and Sticky Rice
Mango and Sticky Rice

Thai street food is ubiquitous and it’s very good. Chinatown and Sukhumvit 38 are among the most popular areas among the most areas among tourists. But you will find great street food almost anywhere in Bangkok. Your options could range from the mellow ‘Mango and sticky rice’ to shrimp noodles and the sweet Roti Gluay to scorpions and assorted insects. Sausages, grilled squid and noodles are other common street snacks. My personal favourite was Mango and Sticky rice, which is rice mixed with coconut milk served with slices of mango.

If you are particularly interested in cuisine, it might be worthwhile to go on one of the many guided food tours. They can help explore hidden gems and give context to dishes like origin and

I was shocked to read this recent report that Street Food is being banned in Bangkok. I am not sure where things stand right now but sincerely hope that future visitors to the street food Mecca and indeed the millions of locals are not robbed of the treasures.

Bonus Pro Tips 

Pro tip 1# – Beware of the Tourist Scam

While in the tourist areas, it is very common to be approached by a perfectly regular looking local who will chat you up first on random topics and proceed to reveal that the Grand Palace and the Wat Pho temple are closed today. They will suggest an alternate itinerary comprising some other temples and proclaimed tourist attractions. They can be very persuasive and may well give the impression that they have absolutely no self-interest and are just being good Samaritans.   DO NOT FALL FOR IT. Check the opening hours of the major attractions on official websites beforehand and politely disengage from such conversations.

There are several other common scams designed for tourists. I found this website very helpful in dodging some.

Pro Tip 2# – Know your Airports

Bangkok is serviced by two airports – The Suvarnabhumi airport which handles international flights and the Don Mueang airport which handles domestic traffic as well as some international traffic, primarily of low-cost carriers. The two airports are almost 40km apart. In peak traffic, it can take close to 2 hours to get from one to another. Note the airports you are booked to arrive at or depart from. There is a free shuttle bus service that operates between the two and carries passengers with onward connections. The service operates from 5am till midnight with buses every 12 mins in peak hours and every 30 mins in off-peak hours. You can find more details here.

Pro Tip 3# – Avoid the Tuktuks

Travel folklore and publicity has made Tuk tuks into an essential part of the Bangkok experience. They are not. The more benign ones may simply overcharge by taking a circuitous route or by simply quoting an inflated price. The more pernicious ones may quote a low rate upfront and then ruin your day by coaxing you to visit tourist scam jewellery shops and tailors.

Well, I really do not want to end the post on this note. So I am back to cheery things. Apart from being a fantastic destination in itself, Bangkok is also the springboard for beachside wonders like Phuket and Krabi and Koh Samui. If you chose to head to Krabi like we did, you may stay at Ao Nang or better still at Railey. Krabi town itself is nice and quaint but far from the beach. The day trip to Phi Phi Islands and Maya Bay is a compulsory inclusion if you visit Krabi (or Phuket). Maya Bay is among the prettiest spots on earth that I have set foot on.

things to do in Bangkok Krabi
Longtail boats

Final word- Bangkok will easily make it worth your time and money with the attractions that it is packed with. Let it overwhelm you with its frenetic pace and breathtaking sights, its scrumptious food and charming people. Go now!

Head to Lake Geneva Region for your fix of Lakeside Bliss

Chateau de Chillon Lake Geneva Region
Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva

When you think of visiting Switzerland, what are the destinations that come to your mind first? Jungfrau and Titlis? Without a doubt, these are fabulous. But we were traveling with our 8-month-old daughter and high altitudes were a strict no-no for us. Our trip to France took us to Annecy, barely 40km from the Swiss border and we were naturally itching to cross over to Switzerland to see what the hype was all about. So we decided to spend three lovely days in the Lake Geneva region. The region is packed with diverse attractions that make for a wholesome trip.

Geneva is well-connected to the world through its airport. It is also connected to major cities of Europe through high-speed rail networks.

Where to Stay in the Lake Geneva Region?

For those visiting the Lake Geneva region, there are several options for base location. Geneva is a big city with all the usual comforts and entrapments. Lausanne is also a fairly big city with a hip urban vibe. Montreux is relatively laid back and oozes glamour and old world charm. Vevey is quaint and quieter. Staying in any of these places sorts you out for connectivity through the rail and boat network. We chose Les Avants, a tiny village at about a 3.5km ascent from Montreux, reachable by a short but beautiful train journey. It does add 20mins of travel time each way if you have to get anywhere but it takes you far away from the crowds and into a scenic heaven. Les Avants gave us ample reasons to be thankful for our choice.

Day 1: Chateau de Chillon & Montreux Lakefront

We arrived in Geneva by bus from Annecy and made our way to Gare Cornavin that connects Geneva to the rest of Switzerland, including Montreux, by rail. Montreux station has automated left luggage lockers with rents varying by size of luggage. We utilized these to travel hands-free. Montreux defines lakeside glamour, with mansions dotting the lakefront having fancy cars parked outside and the aristocracy decked up in haute couture.

Fans posing with Freddie Mercury's Statue in Montreux in Lake Geneva Region
Fans posing with Freddie Mercury’s Statue in Montreux

Montreux is particularly significant for music buffs. Freddie Mercury’s band Queen bought Mountain Studios and recorded much of their music there. Fans of Freddie Mercury can visit “Queen: The Studio Experience”, their recording studio which is well preserved and accessible for free to the visitors (http://www.mercuryphoenixtrust.com/studioexperience/). Mercury’s statue on the lakefront was always a landmark and is now a famous selfie point. Deep Purple also came to Montreux to record their superhit album Machine Head. The Montreux Jazz festival is held annually in July and draws visitors from across the globe (http://www.montreuxjazz.com/).

We walked along the lakefront admiring the views. There are designated decks where people can be seen fishing and indulging in general joie de vivre.  A walk along the promenade is a quintessential Lake Geneva region experience. Views of the lakeside mansions on one side and the turquoise waters reflecting the Alps on the other side make sure that the walk doesn’t feel like an exertion.

Chateau de chillon in the Lake Geneva Region was built in the 11th century and is now a museum
Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva

After a relaxing walk along the promenade, we made our way to Chateau de Chillon. Chateau de Chillon is Switzerland’s most visited historic monument. It dates back to at least the early 11th Century AD and it used to be the summer residence of the Counts of Savoy. The towers and fortified walls still stand strong today and castle has now been converted into a museum. Entrance to the castle costs CHF 12.50 per adult (price as on 2017). The information leaflet handed out the counter has excellent descriptions of the exhibits and galleries inside. Additionally, there are excellent audio-video aids in the rooms describing the times of Savoyard Royalty and other important events in the Chateau’s long and rich history.

We had arrived here fresh from Chateau overkill in the Loire valley and were almost considering skipping the trip to Chillon. But I am so glad we didn’t because Chillon is completely different from the Chateaus in France. The undisputed highlight for me was the underground section. It was initially a store for weapons and was later converted to a prison. François de Bonivard was a prisoner here for four years. Lord Byron has immortalized him in his poem The Prisoner Of Chillon. Byron’s signature is there to be seen on a pillar in the dungeon.

Boat are a popular means of transport in the Lake Geneva Region
Boat to Chillon from Montreux

From Montreux, Chillon can be reached by road, boat or on foot. We took the boat on our way there and walked back and thoroughly enjoyed both the journeys. In fact, visitors with more time on their hands should consider taking a longer boat ride. Boats are a very popular means of transport in the Lake Geneva region among locals and tourists alike.

Lake Geneva at dusk viewed from the Goldenpass train from Montreux to Zweisimmen
Lake Geneva from onboard Goldenpass

We then boarded our train from Montreux for Les Avants. There’s one every hour. Within minutes of our journey, we were treated to jaw-dropping views. As the train wound up the hill, Lake Geneva looked ethereally beautiful under the diffused light of dusk. We stayed at this lovely and well appointed Airbnb (https://tinyurl.com/yceumdjy).

Day 2: Lavaux Wine Region

Les Avants is a great base to explore the Lake Geneva Region
View from our Airbnb Balcony at Les Avants

In the morning, we woke up to the clinking of cowbells. Vivid memories of reading Heidi as a child came flashing back to mind.

Les Avants is a nice base for some hiking trails like the one to Rochers- de-Naye. But we had a more leisurely day in mind. We spent our second day in the Lake Geneva region exploring the Lavuax vineyards in and around Rivaz and St Saphorin. The Lavaux wine region is a UNESCO world heritage site. The outstanding wine terraces envelope the hill slopes stretching down from the villages right up to the lakefront and date back to the 11th Century when monks cultivated the region.

Lavaux Vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva
Lavaux Vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva

Truth be told, the time of the year we were visiting in (early June) was not the best time to tour the vineyards. The vines were denuded and the sun was beating down. After ambling across the villages aimlessly and finding that all the wine caves were also closed, we headed towards Vinorama (http://www.lavaux-vinorama.ch/). Vinorama is a wine centre that has the largest collection of Lavaux wines to taste and purchase. The most famous varietal from the region is Chasselas which is fruity and dry.

The high point for me was a documentary feature called “The Winemaker’s Year” that we saw in their mini theatre. The documentary captures the winemaking journey with changing seasons. It provided a glimpse into the love that goes behind the labor and the emotional highs and lows that are an inevitable part of a winemaker’s life. Here is a link to the trailer of the documentary – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5sIqxxbkRo.

Day 3: Cailler Chocolate Factory & Gruyere Cheese Factory Tour

We spent our last day in the Lake Geneva Region touring the famous Chocolate and Cheese factories. We visited the Cailler Chocolate factory in Broc and Gruyere Cheese factory in, well, Gruyere. To get to these, one needs to take to Goldenpass from Montreux (we boarded from Les Avants) towards Zweisimmen and get down at Montbovon. From there take the train bound for Broc. Gruyere is on the way to Broc from Montbovon. Both the factories are very close to the respective rail stations.

Maison Cailler tour  

A visit to the Cailler Chocolate Factory at Broc Fabrique can be the highlight of any trip to the Lake Geneva Region
Cailler Chocolate Factory

Callier is a subsidiary of Nestle and a premium chocolate maker par excellence. Entry to the Callier factory (https://cailler.ch/en/maison-cailler/la-chocolaterie-suisse/) costs CHF 12 per adult and children under 16 get in free when accompanied by an adult! It includes a guided tour through the factory through audio-visual aids as well as a tasting of the chocolates. The tour begins with the origins of chocolate in South America and continues to its adoption in Europe ending with the modern methods of chocolate making employed by Cailler. There are cocoa beans, hazelnuts and other ingredients of chocolates for you to see, smell and taste to get a true flavor of what goes inside.

There is a small line that makes Cailler’s famous Original Branches chocolates specifically for visitors to consume fresh. Watching the chocolate being made and having it fresh off the line moments later was enough to awaken the child in me.  However, don’t repeat my mistake and stuff yourself up with these because the really good stuff awaits you at the end of the tour in the tasting section. The tasting is largely unsupervised and you are free to try as many of their chocolates as you want, each more delectable than the other. We introduced our daughter to chocolates here and she seemed to agree that they were excellent.

Chocolate tasting at Cailler Chocolate Factory
Nyra’s intro to Chocolates!

La Maison du Gruyere

On our way back from Broc towards Montreux, we hopped off at Gruyere and headed to the cheese factory (https://www.lamaisondugruyere.ch/landing-page-en/) right outside the station.

Entrance to the factory costs CHF 7 per adult. The audio guide and visual aids explain the various stages in the production of Gruyere cheese. There is an attempt to create an interaction with all five senses- hearing, smell, sight, touch and taste- as they relate to cheese-making. You also get three samples of Gruyere cheese of three different ages to demonstrate how it matures with age. Gruyere gained the AOC as a Swiss Cheese in 2001 and is extremely popular worldwide.

Gruyere Cheese Factory in Switzerland.
Gruyere Cheese Factory


Please refer to the latest cheese-making timetable on their site before visiting. Visiting the factory when cheese-making is not in progress can be a disappointing experience, as it was for us. Even more so after the very high bar set by the chocolate factory tour. I would advise people to skip it unless they are visiting the chocolate factory also and this is something they are covering on the way.

While in Gruyere, it is worth visiting the eponymous castle from the 13th century that has now been converted into a museum. From Gruyere, we came back to Les Avants for the night. Sadly, our stay in Switzerland was drawing to a close. Our train to Paris was on the next afternoon.

We spent our last morning lazing in our Airbnb, soaking in the views for one last time and going over the memories we made. We headed back with a promise to come back to explore more of this beautiful country. We had barely scratched the surface and there were so many treasures left unexplored.

Sandakphu Trek : Kangchenjunga like you have never seen it before!

View of Sleeping Buddha formation of Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
When seven of us, friends from the engineering days, signed up for a Himalayan trek none of us had any clue what we were getting into. We chose Sandakphu because it is a relatively short trek and is considered to be of moderate difficulty. You know, not so easy that it won’t come with bragging rights. Not so difficult that we repent getting ourselves into it.
Sandakphu is about 35km trek from Maneybhanjan which is the base for the trek. Mane bhanjan (alternatively spelled as Maney Bhanjang or Manebhanjang) is a tiny hamlet in Darjeeling district in West Bengal, on the Indo-Nepal border. The border is a narrow ditch and one can hardly make out any difference in the lifestyles of people on the two sides. They cross over with nonchalance to buy grocery and for work. Maybe I am being simplistic but it makes one wonder why all national borders couldn’t be like this. Anyway, I digress.
If you are a first-timer, the standard prescription for a mountain trek is that you train yourself to be fit enough to run 4.5kms in half an hour. The fitter you are the more enjoyable the trek becomes. Your mind then is on the resplendent scenery and not on the shortness of your breath.
We traveled with Denzong Leisure (http://www.denzongleisure.com/) and paid approximate 9k per head for a group of 7 people. This included transport from and back to Siliguri, all stays, meals and services of a guide. We were moderately satisfied with their services. There was nothing untoward about the experience but we would have liked our tour leader to be more of a man of the world. There are other groups which conduct the trek, like Indiahikes (https://indiahikes.com/sandakphu/), which are favorably reviewed by trekkers.
Trekking route map of Sandakphu and Phalut from Mane bhanjan
Route Map: Mane Bhanjan to Sandakphu (Courtesy: Indiahikes)
We went in May. There are two good seasons to trek Sandakphu. The summer treks happen in April- May and the temperature is usually in the high single digits. The winter treks from October to December see the mercury stay below 5 degrees consistently. We covered the circuit in four days and took the route that goes via Tumling, Kalipokhari and Bikhey bhanjan. We descended via Srikhola. Some trekkers with more time at their disposal proceed to Phalut which takes another day to reach. It is at roughly the same altitude as Sandakphu but takes one further up close to Kanchenjunga.

Getting there

Mane bhanjan, the base for the trek, is at an altitude of 2150m and at a distance of about 80km from Siliguri. It should take you about 3 hours to drive to Mane bhanjang from Siliguri. Siliguri is serviced by the New Jalpaiguri Railway Station (different from Jalpaiguri) and the Bagdogra airport. Bagdogra is connected to Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore & Guwahati by direct flights.

The Journey to Sandakphu

Ancient Land Rovers that operate in Sandakphu
Range Rovers that ply here
Our train to Siliguri was late and hence on the first day of the trek, by the time we reached Manebhanjan, it was too late to trek onwards to Tumling. So we drove to Tonglu that evening and stayed in a trekker’s hut. We drove in an ancient Land Rover. These are pretty much the only vehicle capable of negotiating the terrain. For those who want to enjoy the views from Sandakphu but are not favorably disposed to trekking, it is possible to go all the way up to Sandakphu on these Land Rovers and the drive time is roughly 5 hours.  
The trek is dotted with settlements every 6-8 km, almost all along the border and most have an SSB checkpost. The settlements are no more than about 10 houses which offer basic accommodation and food to trekkers. Basic creature comforts that we take for granted are non-existent here. Who knows, maybe the simple folks of these hills don’t desire these either. One wonders what makes these people chose to stay in such extreme conditions and isolation. Wouldn’t life be a lot easier in a city nearby? It could be a strong sense of rootedness in the land of their forefathers that anchors them to this place. It could be a preference for the slow life. It could simply be a fear of the big city – a case of choosing the known devil over an unknown one.
Morning views of Tonglu on the way to Sandakphu
This dog followed me on my morning stroll in Tonglu
Rhododendrons in bloom near Sandakphu
We were a bit early for the Rhododendrons – they had just begun to bloom
I woke up early next morning to take a walk and breathe in some fresh air. The Rhododendrons were just beginning to bloom. The only sounds I heard here were the rustling of leaves and the fluttering of Tibetan prayer flags that stand in the way of the strong gushing winds. Sometimes I caught the occasional chirping of birds. 

Sacred lake Kalipokhari on the way to Sandakphu
Kalipokhari: The Sacred Lake
We left Tonglu the next morning and proceeded towards Kalipokhari. We covered 15 km on the first day of our trek and were already beginning to feel accomplished. Kalipokhari is a lake that is held sacred by the locals. It is forbidden to take a dip in the lake. As if anyone in the right mind would attempt such a thing, what with the freezing water. The lake plays peekaboo with visitors – visible now shrouded behind a cloud ball the next minute. We again put up at a trekker’s hut there. At night, to keep our spirits high, we tried Tongba. It’s a local alcoholic drink made by seeping warm water through fermented barley. It is of Tibetan origin and is also widely consumed in Nepal. 
Scenes from Tonglu on the way to Sandakphu
The next day we trekked to our summit, Sandakphu which is 7km from Kalipokhari via Bikhey bhanjan. The stretch from Kalipokhari to Sandakphu goes through the Singalila national park. The ascent was steeper than the day before and our bodies had begun answering back. Nevertheless, the splendid scenery along the way kept us upbeat. The last few meters before the summit are always the most difficult. There is a constant feeling of getting there but not quite. The moment when the clouds part to reveal the peak, within touching distance is a moment of unadulterated joy. 
The evening was cloudy and we were robbed of the famous sunset views.
We chose to make the best of a bad situation by heading to Aal. Aal is a half hour walk from Sandakphu. Some trekkers pitch tents at Aal and there are also a couple of trekkers hostels. Most trek guides bunk here. We sipped some more Tongba, a local vodkaesque tipple. We took our turns smoking some very nice and fresh organic matter of very questionable legality. This went along with stories from the seasoned trekking guides. The walk back to Sandakphu was in the fading light of dusk that lent an eerie beauty to the peaks. The sky was lit up in a hundred shades of orange with the drifting white clouds forming a magical background for the silhouettes of the mountains. Throw in some denuded rhododendron branches and pine trees and you have a setting fit for movies. 
Million Dollar Views of the Sandakphu Sunrise
Lovely sunrise viewed from Sandakphu
The first rays of the Sun
We spent the night at Sherpa Chalet, which is among a handful of places to stay in Sandakphu. The grind was over. Well almost. The view we were about to be treated to next morning was the piece de resistance. We woke up at 5am to get our fix of the majestic sunrise. Slowly but surely, the sun’s rays started lighting up Kanchenjunga. We saw the unique “Sleeping Buddha” formation of Kanchenjunga which is only visible from Sandakphu. We got exquisite views of 4 of the 5 highest peaks in the world – Mt Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse & Makalu – all except Godwin Austen. Not all summiteers are lucky to find fair weather that allows such memorable views. We counted our blessings and I made a mental note to do this more often.


Sleeping Buddha formation of Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
The Sleeping Budhdha: Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
Homeward Bound
At around 10am on Day 4, satiated with the sights we took in at dawn, we began our descent. We descended through Gurdung to Srikhola. It is a topic of frequent conversation among trekkers on whether the ascent is tougher or the descent. A wise man put it aptly. During the ascent, the descent seems easier and during the descent, ascent feels like the easier bit. We stopped for the night at the riverside village Srikhola, after walking downhill for about 17km. When almost nearing Srikhola, we spotted a house with some country chicken grazing. We picked one up to be freshly roasted on a fire to celebrate our conquest of the peak and a safe descent thereafter.
Roast chicken on barbeque
Our guide Mingma roasted a country chicken for us!
Final Musings!


Somewhere during our descent, we finally came back to cellular network coverage after four days and informed our families of our safety and well being. Being away from the connected life provided a great opportunity for introspection and for attaining peace with oneself. Free from worldly distractions, we also truly enjoyed the company of friends. For some time, it felt like we were back in our hostel days when each other’s company was ample entertainment and no digital diversions were needed. The trek was a lesson in finding contentment in simpler things and being grateful for things that we consider an entitlement. We came back with very tired bodies but perfectly refreshed souls. 
Himalayan trekkers
The victors are posing!