Sharmi on the Trot

Travelling, Exploring, Eating…

Archive for the category “Culture”

Stumbling upon the Royal Cemetery in Bangkok

Bangkok is only about two hours away from Pattaya. Take the highways, drive fast and you’re there even earlier. I had chosen to stay near Jomtien beach, away from the hustle and bustle of South Pattaya. After all, when you’re in Thailand for three days, a stopover really before you head to Cambodia, you really want to dive into the pristine blue sea and swim away all tensions.

The temple entrance

The temple entrance

But, I did decide to head to Bangkok for a day just to see what the city was about. Ever since I swayed to ‘Shall we dance’ from The King and I, the name Siam conjured up images of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr dancing away to their hearts content. But that was as a child when Hollywood had captured my heart. I’ve always been eager to go to Thailand, not because I love the cuisine, but also to discover the beautiful places.

If I’m honest, the first impression of Bangkok really didn’t set my heart on fire like I had hoped it would. I did the touristy stuff – visiting the Royal Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Golden Buddha… but it was an unexpected discovery which made my day. It was hot and humid and I did feel dehydrated. But just the fact that I walked into the Royal Mausoleum on the one day in the year when it’s open to the public according to the Lunar calendar (without any prior knowledge) made me smile. This is what travelling is about isn’t it?

So peaceful

So peaceful

Gothic architecture in Thailand

Gothic architecture in Thailand

Not a must-see attraction, the Wat Ratchabopit, or Royal Cemetery, is peaceful and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle cities are associated with. Located just a few minutes away from the Royal Palace, the peace welcomes you. The memorials dedicated to Thai royalty are so varied. From Gothic to Indian to Thai, the architecture of the different memorials seem to have been inspired from many styles. When I walked around the memorials, I was alone. No tourists, no cameras, just me. There is no entrance fee but you do get asked ‘how did you find out about this place?’ And you say, ‘by chance’ with a smile.

The main temple inside was shut for the public till 2pm because of prayers. Apparently there were a lot of visitors early morning because the Royal couple had come to offer prayers to the ancestors.

Inside the temple complex

Inside the temple complex

Now let me tell you something. Everything yellow you see in the complex is gold. Yes, it’s not coloured in gold paint to impress tourists.

The gold shining in the sun

The gold shining in the sun

Once you enter the main temple, you’re left amazed at the art work because everything is done by hand. The doors have inlaid work in pearls, gold statues of Buddhas in different postures are found around the temple. Go inside and the red carpet is so lush. It’s so quiet there that one can spend hours just sitting and gazing. See the monks talking to youngsters as they try to imbibe their words of wisdom.

It’s always wonderful to discover something new and to stumble upon something so beautiful by chance, brings me great joy.

Details on the walls, all by hand

Details on the walls, all by hand

The ceiling inside

The ceiling inside

Words of wisdom

Words of wisdom

Oh wanderlust, please never cease

I’m happiest when I’m about to travel. I really am. I revel in the anticipation of the place I’m going to, to immerse myself in its history, taste delicious cuisines and all that have influenced them. Every time I have one of my most treasured possessions in my hand, I know the coming days will be exciting because an immigration stamp always gives me the biggest smile. Last night as I sat in the airport lounge, waiting impatiently to board, it reconfirmed what I had believed in for so long – I have wanderlust and it’s here to stay.

My treasured possession

My treasured possession

It all began when my parents decided to whisk me off to Assam when I was just barely a year old. Though I don’t remember the adventures (due to obvious reasons), my parents insist that I stopped crying the moment I saw a gigantic elephant. With a toothy grin I stared at the animal, and then almost leaped out from my mother’s arms to touch the trunk. A memory which I do recollect, albeit vaguely, is when I was four years old, the parents decided I needed to see India. So a month long summer break turned into a hot desert adventure in Rajasthan. The next year it was cold Madhya Pradesh.

I think I have to thank my parents because they had never stopped me from travelling even during my teen years. Not once would they say ‘you can’t go’. In fact, since I and then my sister moved out, they’ve travelled more than the two of us have managed to! When I call them, I sometimes find out that they are somewhere in the wilderness of the Bengal jungles or lying on some sandy beach soaking up the sun.

I do get to travel a fair bit thanks to my job. It really is fascinating I assure you because not many people can get to do what I do. I write on sports in newspapers which can be fun. You get to meet interesting people, visit exotic countries, cover different kinds of sports… so there really is nothing to complain about. But at the same time, unlike many people, I love to live out of a suitcase. My backpack or suitcase (whichever can be applicable in different trips) is always packed. When I travel I can stay anywhere as long as I get to soak in different cultures, eat like the locals, meet friendly and warm people… I often think if I could do it full time. Maybe? Who knows what the future holds, right?

As the plane touched down at the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok early morning, I smiled to myself. During immigration when I got my first Thai stamp, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. I just keep my fingers crossed that the wanderlust never ceases.

From My Nepal Diaries

It has been a hectic couple of weeks. After consecutive events in Delhi, I returned from a hectic three-day trip from Hyderabad and then again, got stuck with more events. Either way, as I was stuck in traffic last afternoon, my mind kept going back to the glorious Himalayas. Due to the lack of sleep or the feeling of not wanting to go to work, I kept day dreaming about beautiful sunsets and sunrises I had seen in Nepal in early February.

Masks everywhere

Masks everywhere

It had been a sudden decision to visit Kathmandu. I needed to get away from work for a bit and realising Kathmandu is only a hour away by air, I took the plunge. (The fact that it’s cheaper than flying home also helped in the decision making part). I fail to understand why Indians are not keen on going to Nepal. Most say ‘it’s just there. We can go later’ while others add ‘it doesn’t feel like going abroad’. There loss I guess. (If you hold an Indian passport, you’ll jump with joy when you realise you DON’T need a visa).

Kathmandu lies below

Kathmandu lies below

As the plane slowly descended, my heart skipped a beat seeing the snow capped peaks, hearing them call my name. The Tribhuvan airport is so quaint that when you come out on the tarmac, you are reminded of a gorgeous hill station somewhere in the north of India. Honestly speaking, my first impressions of Kathmandu as a city wasn’t really that great but as I soon realised, there are pockets, like in every city, which make you fall in love over and over again. A quick drive to Swayambhu made me so happy, that not even Titora (dried fruit speciality) could top the delight.

Football time

Football time

The oldest stupa in Kathmandu valley, the long climb from the bottom, the gold spire and the piercing eyes… reaching the top is worth it. As the city lies beneath you, you wonder, could it really be that pretty? While Tibetian prayer flags flutter in the wind while young monks show off their Ronaldo-esque skills, you feel at peace.

At Bhaktapur

At Bhaktapur

What’s not to love about the Durbar Squares? I managed to visit two — Kathmandu and Bhaktapur — and felt I was travelling back in time. The courtyards, temples and palaces all show off the incredible skill of the Newar craftsmen. It had taken them centuries to produce what people can marvel at today. When you enter the complexes, you can feel yourself getting lost in the architecture, wondering to yourself how beautiful everything is. If you decide to climb up, be careful of the steep steps. It’s a great work out but be sure to climb down safe.

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At Kathmandu Durbar square

For all you shoppers, Thamel is great. Cheap and clean you have to be able to bargain to get the things you want. I have a custom, to get a small something back from every trip. It could be a magnet, postcard or even a dried leaf I had so carefully placed in my diaries… Something to make you ponder of the time in the place…

Boudhyanath Stupa

Boudhyanath Stupa

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The Himalayas, just before the sun set

An aunt had once told me to watch the sunset from Nagarkot. She had said, ‘You will never regret it’. It was the highlight of my few days in Nepal. Having reached early, as I sipped on steaming mug of coffee pulling my scarf tighter, I slowly saw the changing colours. I’ve seen the Himalays plenty of times but from the other side, it seemed prettier if that’s even possible. I had overheard a seasoned Nepal traveller speaking about the mountains and as the sun slowly set, giving off a gorgeous golden hue as the colours of the valley merged with the mountains, it’s hard to describe what you see. There are so many shades of pinks, oranges, blues and purples, you decide its best to admire than try to reel off the colour charts. My hands were cold and nose freezing thanks to the heavy winds but I couldn’t stop gazing. Even as I write this, I have a smile on my face remembering my cold nose. I’ll be back Nepal, just you wait.

Sunset at Nagarkot

Sunset at Nagarkot

NOTE: Indian credit or debit cards do not work, so carry cash.

Loving Amsterdam… on a budget

I remember leaving Amsterdam early one evening last summer, getting on the bus which would take me to Paris the next day. I left behind two days of walking around the quaint city, masterpieces in the museums, tremendously good food and the promise of learning how to cycle. (Yes, I still keep falling down somehow!).

The flower market

The flower market

An expensive city but not in the league of Paris and Rome, Amsterdam stole my heart and has kept it, asking me to go back every single day. It is possible to enjoy everything the city offers when you’re on a tight budget, and discover hidden gems along the way… I may physically be in Delhi, but my heart still lies in Amsterdam dreaming about the Night Watch. Here’s my top 5 things to do in Amsterdam on a budget.

1. Spend a day at Rijksmuseum
Unlike the Van Gogh museum, tickets for the Dutch national is valid for one year, not a particular date. You do pay 15 euros for a ticket unless you’re lucky to have a student pass but it will be worth every penny. Opened after 10 years of restoration work, its an art lover’s delight. Get lost among the Rembrandts, Vermeers and Steens. Read up on art history in the research library which impresses anyone who walks in. Seriously, do go there. (Do visit the Doelen Hotel if you want see where the Night Watch was painted)

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2. Walk around a lot!
Amsterdam has too many canals! From my hostel near Amsterdam Centraal, if you walked just a few steps, you’d come across one. And another, then another… You cover the whole city in a couple of hours just walking along the canals. Quaint houseboats line the water bodies as tourists fancy a ride in one. Typical Amsterdam houses line either side. You can admire the city differently if you walk in the morning and then at night. The pulse of the city changes completely.

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3. Visit Anne Frank House
a10A few Dutch friends told me that they’ve never visited because its ‘just an old house’. I beg to differ. If you’ve loved reading Anne Frank’s diary growing up, the reality is completely different. Not only does it remind you of the horrors of war, emotions choke you. I hate crying but by the time I left, I could feel my eyes watering. Living in the dark afraid of the sunlight, hoping day after day no one finds out about the hiding place, the lost hopes of ever making it out alive from the concentration camps… the chills don’t leave. Something to learn from the past, of hope and love, all from a young girl who loved to write.

4. Take a free ferry ride
Sometimes a canal cruise may prove expensive. So, why not take the ferry? It’s a free service, leaving every couple of minutes from the dock (behind the station) to Noord (north). Hassle free, get up on one and enjoy the wind caress your face. One can take a short or long ride depending on which ferry you choose to ride. Once you reach the other side, see the city centre from the other side as you sip coffee!

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5. Eating cheap and posing like a pro
From fries to pancakes, herring to cheese, Amsterdam is a foodie’s delight. Local carts easily sell the best stuff. I urge you to try the famous herring. It’s an acquired taste but oh so delish. Then, head to Museumplein to pose in front of the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign. Yes it’s cliched but when in Amsterdam why not!

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I hope to be back very soon darling Amsterdam!

Travel photos: Beautiful Nepal

I was recently in Nepal for a couple of days. Such a gorgeous country only an hour away from Delhi. When the plane comes closer to the tarmac, the majestic Himalayas beckon – come play they say. There are places in Kathmandu which amaze you, transport you back centuries… The food, oh my the divine food, the taste still lingers… If you ever get the chance head to Nepal because one trip  is never enough… Here’s my visual ode to the beautiful country…

(All pictures have been taken with Nikon Coolpix L26)

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The prayer flags… blowin’ in the wind at Swayambhu

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The arduous climb is totally worth the view from the top

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Prayer wheels

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A Nepalese thali

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Views from Durbar Square

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Sunset from Boudhanath Stupa

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The setting sun from the lap of the Himalayas – at Nagarkot

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Admired from afar, close to my heart

“I went to Turkey,” a ponytailed seven-year-old proudly said in school. It was time for show and tell — how you spent your summer break — in Class 2B. Photographs were passed along the room with children gleefully pointing at gorgeous monuments such as the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, names of which I found out much later of course!  One photograph in particular stood out, for me that is.

“That’s the big river separating Asia and Europe,” my friend explained.
To a seven-year-old, still learning the nuances of geography, straits may seem like big rivers, but looking at that picture so many years ago, it stoked my curiosity. By the next three years, my mind had been made up. I needed to go to the country which was part of two continents. As a child I thought, “How cool! You can step into Asia if you don’t like Europe!”

As I grew older and accessing the internet became as easy as A-B-C, Turkey never left my thoughts. A possible reason for my fascination with the country could have been thanks to my numerous visits to historical monuments in India. Both countries have a rich history of tradition and culture and looking at books, I would often day dream about  a land called Turkey.

Having been bitten by wanderlust at a rather early age thanks to my parents, I started to read more about the country that has always intrigued me. The grand plan after turning of legal age was to take a gap year and travel the world. Sadly, the question of expenses back then seemed so trivial. I was sure I could manage something like waitressing or teaching in exotic locations to get me through the year. All I had to do was get there. But once college started, so did work. The desire to visit the exotic country was repressed but never lost.

Two friends went to Turkey on family holidays in my second year of college. Facebook was just beginning to get popular and certain pictures made my jaw drop. With a passion for food matching that of travel, my friend’s pictures at Misir Carsisi were imprinted on my mind. From turmeric to sumac, dried fruits to olives, I could just imagine the intoxicating smells coming from each shop, beckoning me, tantalizing me… I vowed to visit, one day.

A colleague was sent to Istanbul two years back on some assignment. Once the official part finished, he decided to travel a bit on his own. On his return and before he could put up pictures of the trip on social media, I stormed over to his desk wanting to see them. I wasn’t let down. Pamukkale to Ephesus, just the names transported me to the hot springs and the Temple of Artemis. I kid you not! I could visualise walking among the ruins, wishing I could time travel. The ceramic evil eye keychain he brought back for me hangs proudly on my bedroom wall among the the many bric-a-bracs collected throughout my travels.

A favourite uncle got married last year. A romantic at heart, he’s always wanted to take his new bride to Paris. But, when he chose Cappadocia I understood the reason, looking at his pictures. The fairytale land beckoned and the magical kiss in a hot air balloon overlooking the vast expanse of natural delightful formations can rival the Eiffel Tower anyday. He told me later, “I’ve been to Paris before, but Cappadocia was the right choice. It left my wife breathless!” Can you imagine feeling such way? Floating over a magical land?

In January, I came this close to booking air tickets for Istanbul. But then, my sister brainwashed me into booking tickets for Munich instead, saying ‘We’ll go there next year, I promise.’ In fact, Dan Brown’s Inferno mentions the Hagia Sophia, which I was reading before leaving for a summer of backpacking across western Europe. And while Botticelli’s Mappa dell’Inferno pulled me to Italy, a little part of me kept wishing I was visiting the wonders of Turkey instead. To see the vast blue, walk through the bylanes, bump into locals and learn more about the interesting history of the country sipping on Turkish coffee. But wishes have a way of coming true I realised when I bumped into a Turkish lady living in Barcelona, who called me home for coffee and gossip. Then, to my surprise, when I met two Turkish students spending their summer in Italy, I was touched by their hospitality. Without a second’s hesitation they made me promise to visit them as soon as possible!

And which football fan wouldn’t want to visit Turkey I ask? The atmosphere during the Galatasaray and Fenerbahce derbies must be electric. While Indian football fans have Mohun Bagan and East Bengal clashes, it must be quite interesting to view battles between two clubs from the same city but different continents! I can just imagine the chants, the calls and colour!

Orhan Pamuk’s book can be found in many homes and certainly on my bookshelves. And as I flip the pages of My Name is Red on a cold Delhi winter evening with a mug of hot coffee for company, I keep telling myself, ‘Very soon, very soon. Turkey awaits you.’

This post is an entry in the “Million Stories” Contest sponsored by the Turkish Embassy, India

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