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Bali – A Little India in Indonesia

Bali – A Little India in Indonesia

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Besakih Temple Complex

Indonesia Series Part-II. Appeared in December 2016 issue of Smart Photography, India’s Premier Photography Magazine.

Bali – A Little India in Indonesia

In my previous travel story, we travelled to Lombok. Let’s embark on a Bali journey this time.

You may read Indonesia Series Part-I (Lombok – Bali of 70s) HERE.

I will start this journey by asking a question – in how many locations outside India would you get a feeling that you are in the land of Mahabharata, Bhagwat Gita, and Ramayana?

Not many, I guess. But in Bali, I constantly kept getting reminded of India’s holy epics!

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Bali ranks high every time a travel conversation veers towards beaches, water sports, nightlife, backpacking, volcanoes, and more. But one fact that gets seldom talked about is the Hindu influence here. Of the 17,000-odd islands that form the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is the only officially Hindu island.

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Gita Updesh – an elaborate sculpture in a Denpasar roundabout

We were staying in Seminyak, an area surrounded by Kuta, Denpasar, and North Kuta. To give you a further sense of its location, let me just say that it is on the rear edge of the lower fin of this fish-shaped island – and this fish is swimming from left to right.

Seminyak is a lot quieter than Kuta. But then, that’s not saying much as even this area is a major travel hub in Bali with the presence of many luxury hotels including the Oberoi Bali. It is fast developing into the high-street shopping capital of Bali.

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The steps leading to Besakih Temple

Besakih Temple

One of the days, we decided to travel to northwest Bali to visit the scenic Besakih Temple. This complex has 23 separate, yet related temples, located on 6 levels on the slope of the highest mountain in Bali – Mount Agung. We were glad we were accompanied by a guide from our hotel as he was well prepared and had carried sarongs. The scam here is that the touts insist you hire a sarong at an exorbitant rental of US$ 25-30 each and they also compulsorily force you to engage a guide at equally ridiculous fees.

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Intricate carved sculptures of Vishnu Temple in Besakih Complex

Mount Agung is normally covered in clouds. But, during our visit we were fortunate to have seen it. Making our way to the temple complex, high humidity made its presence felt and we were sweating profusely. It is definitely advisable to wear a hat during a visit to Besakih.

Besides various other Hindu deities, there is also a Vishnu temple at the highest level of the complex. Intricately carved sculptures and idols adorn this temple. The compound of this temple accords the best view to the spread-out temple complex!

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Goa Gajah cave entrance (do note the Hindu mythological connection of this bas relief)

Goa Gajah

While returning from Besakih Temple, we took a detour and went to Goa Gajah – a cave temple with a recently excavated sarovar (pond). Both, the cave entrance and the sarovar had superb sculptures and carvings of gods and goddesses – some from Hindu mythology. Inside the cave, there is an idol of Lord Ganesha!

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Idols inside Goa Gajah

A usual drive through Ubud took us past a string of streets, each one lined with art galleries displaying Balinese and other art.

The roundabouts across our route had well-painted and well-maintained sculptures – from Geeta Updesh to Arjuna with his bow and arrow, from Rama with the monkey army to Vishnu killing a demon while riding garuda!

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Foreground – Goa Gajah Sarovar. Background – Goa Gajah Cave.

It is interesting that the manifestations of these gods and mythological characters resemble Hindu gods, mythological characters, and their accepted form. Vishnu riding the garuda is holding the conch shell and chakra; while Arjuna clearly seems to be wielding his favoured bow – Gandiva!

Tanah Lot and Uluwatu

We spent a couple of sunsets at scenic Balinese Temples dedicated to sea gods. Both, Tanah Lot as well as Uluwatu form a part of the seven temples dotting the south-western coast of Bali. Both are dedicated to Rudra, the Vedic manifestation of Shiva.

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Tanah Lot Temple gets surrounded by seawater during high tide

While Tanah Lot gets surrounded by seawater in high tide, Uluwatu is perched on a cliff that is 70 metres high.

Local guides recommend that the traveller should visit these temples around sunset. While sunset does add magic to these temples, getting good images of these temples around sunset definitely poses a challenge!

You may choose to shop in touristy Kuta or pricey Saminyak, experience the colourful nightlife across the entire southwestern Bali, or closely interact with free-spirited and talented Balinese artists in Ubud.

You may even decide to do the wildlife trails in Bali to check out the elephants and a wide variety of monkeys. It may be your wont to trek the volcanos and jungles, or indulge in exotic watersports.

But if you are as fascinated with the Hindu discovery outside India as I am, I definitely recommend that you visit the places I have shared in this travel story. You may even choose to do one better by hunting out and discovering a few more gems and come back with story richer than mine!

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Our Family Fun and Togetherness in Kashmir

Our Family Fun and Togetherness in Kashmir

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Our Family Fun and Togetherness in Kashmir

Every year, winters arrive at our door with cold winds, woollen clothes, mouthwatering snacks to nibble beside an Angithi, and a perfect time to go for a family vacation. A vacation to rekindle the warmth in our relationships and to make endless memories that we can cherish for the rest of our lives.

Recently, while skimming through my Facebook account, I came across #ErtigaHolidayDiaries campaign by Maruti Suzuki Ertiga which emphasized on sharing the beautiful moments a family spent together during holidays. And frankly, I instantly warmed up to the idea and decided to share about my family trip to Kashmir.

During this holiday, we had travelled around to all the touristy places around Srinagar. As I was going through the photo album, nostalgia engulfed me like fog on a cold winter morning while the feelings deep within were warm!

So, without any further ado, let me plunge into my very own chapter of #ErtigaHolidayDiaries!

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Wholesale Vegetable market, Dal Lake, Srinagar

The time we spent in Srinagar was magical. An early morning Shikara ride to the famous wholesale vegetable market in Dal Lake gave me a glimpse of the traditional lifestyle of Kashmiris (natives of Kashmir). #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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Predictably, my daughters had refused to wake up early in the morning for the Dal Lake Shikara ride to the vegetable market. But, they were not prepared to be denied the opportunity to do a Shikara ride, all the same. So, here we were… for their Shikara ride! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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What good is youth if you do not indulge in occasional tomfoolery? A dried maple leaf is a fun adornment for the tousled hair – or so my younger daughter thinks! #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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It was a joy to click my two princesses as they sat on their mock throne in Nishat Bagh. As I click, the younger one is distracted. Well, being the younger one, isn’t that her right? #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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Gulmarg. As we were heading towards the famed Gulmarg Gandola, these pony-riding tourists reminded us of the Wild West Action Thrillers from the era of the original Hollywood Cowboy – Clint Eastwood! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

As we crossed this vast meadow, wife and I were sharing with our daughters that the famous Bollywood hit song from Rajesh Khanna starrer ‘Aap Ki Kasam’ (Jai Jai Shiv Shankar) was picturised in the temple at the edge of this meadow. #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

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Here, the pose says it all – “Yay, we’ve made it to Apharwat (2nd level of Gulmarg Gandola)! While it was sunny here, the wind chill and the snow around made us freeze. Well, almost! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

Pahalgam, here we come! Little lambs and bunny rabbits in their arms, their expressions seem to say – ”We are loving it!” #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. My better half decides to truly live up to the saying. Here she is, in total traditional Kashmiri finery! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

One is happy, while the other is zapped! As we were climbing down the Sonamarg glacier, my daughters were gingerly walking down the slippery terrain. So, I can’t be sure if she was zapped or it was all concentration! #ErtigaHolidayDiariesfamily-fun-togetherness-kashmir

Believe it or not, all of us screamed in unison – “We love traffic jams!” – as we were crossing this adorable herd. As dog lovers, we even loved the Himalayan Sheep Dog who was dutifully keeping step with his master. #ErtigaHolidayDiaries

Dear Readers, I hope you enjoyed this little chapter by me in the on-going fun-filled #ErtigaHolidayDiaries dedicated to celebrating family and togetherness!

For more chapters of #ErtigaHolidayDiaries, visit their Facebook page or check out their tweets (@ertigabymaruti)

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Silent, Yet Eloquent – Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Silent, Yet Eloquent – Cellular Jail, Port Blair

 

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December 2016 issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways, carried my Cellular Jail image shot in Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This monument holds an important place in Modern Indian History.

Silent, Yet Eloquent – Cellular Jail, Port Blair

Cellular Jail forms an integral chapter of India’s freedom struggle. Commissioned by the British in 1896 and completed in 1906, it was built to exile Indian freedom fighters away from mainland India. It was called the ‘Cellular Jail’ as it did not have any dormitory – only solitary confinement cells – 696 of them.

The reason? The British did not want Indian revolutionists to interact and plan their moves. But plan they did, finally liberating India. In a way, despite not being the centre stage, it continually stole the limelight. Today, this National Memorial bears a mute testimony to the success of the freedom struggle and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Port Blair.

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Sharing 16 UNESCO Sites of 2016 in My Hundredth Post

Sharing 16 UNESCO Sites of 2016 in My Hundredth Post

Soon, we will all be celebrating the onset of 2017. Before 2016 bids goodbye, I have another milestone to celebrate – I am scoring a century! Yes, that’s right. This is my hundredth post. I wanted it to be a landmark in more ways than one. Hence, I decided this post would be about the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I visited during 2016. Coincidentally, there are 16 of these!

Instead of keeping this post chronological, I am going to mix it up a bit! Some of these UNESCO sites may seem inane, but each is loaded with solid reasons for inscription. I’ll be going over those too. So, let me start the sharing.

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Reclining Buddha, Cave Temple, Dambulla

#1. Golden Temple or Cave Temple, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

It lies around 150km East of Colombo, in central Sri Lanka. While the distance isn’t much, it can take you around 4 hours to reach here from Colombo.

While there are many caves sprinkled around the area, most travellers visit the 5 significant adjoining caves in the temple complex. The entire complex is still functional as a Buddhist Temple though it dates back to between 3rd century BCE and 18th century CE. Extremely well preserved, it was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1991.

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Qutub Minar on a lunar eclipse night

#2. Qutub Minar, New Delhi, India

This 73-metre tall minaret is the tallest brick minaret in the world. It was commissioned in early 13th century by Qutb-al-Din Aibak and was completed by his successor, Iltutmish. Along with the other monuments in the Mehrauli Archeological Park, Qutub Minar has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You may wonder why I talk of Qutub Minar – a monument near my home. Well, I know of many people who live in Delhi but have never visited some of the monuments here. So, no harm sharing about my visit here during this year!

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Nederluleå Church, Gammelstad, Sweden

#3. Church Town of Gammelstad, Luleå, Sweden

Stone church of Gammelstad was built by Sweden in 1492 as the first move to lay lien on the territory, as borders were not well defined in those days. A church town came about around this church.

Here, people would build cottages and would use them for stay during their big feast pilgrimage. Though privately owned, these cottages were not meant for permanent residence. These had no water supply, no heating facility, and no cooking arrangements. All that was and still is taboo as these cottages were meant for a spartan stay during the pilgrimage. And that is what defined a church town. As it stayed true to the initial intent, the church town of Gammelstad has earned a UNESCO World Heritage site inscription in 1996.

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Dressing up Buddha at Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, Anuradhapura

#4. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Considered to be the first capital of Sri Lanka (from 4th century CE to 11 century CE), Anuradhapura lies 205 kms North-East of Colombo. This distance may take up to 6 hours by road.

The excavated ruins consist of three types of structure – monastic buildings, Dagobas (bell shaped masonry), and Pokunas (bathing tanks). The largest Dagoba (Ruwanwelisaya) is 1100 feet in circumference. It got inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982.

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Across this Amsterdam canal, you can spot the Anne Frank House

#5. Canals of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

More than one hundred kilometers of canals, about 90 islands and around 1,500 bridges are there in Amsterdam. The three main canals from 17th century – Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht – were dug during the Dutch Golden Age. These form concentric belts around the city, the Grachtengordel.

These canals are the keystone of Amsterdam’s exemplary city planning and were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.

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A memorial commemorating indentured labour landings in Mauritius

#6. Aapravasi Ghat, Mauritius

Aapravasi Ghat (Immigration Depot) or Coolie Ghat has earned its UNESCO inscription in 2006 for being the first port that received indentured labour, many of whom settled in Mauritius, while the others made their way to the plantations across the British empire.

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Impressive interiors of San Agustin Church, Manila, The Philippines

#7. San Agustin Church, Manila, Philippines

San Agustin Church is one of the four Baroque Churches of Philippines that were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1993.

The church building does not only seem imposing and indestructible, it truly is. It has withstood repeated calamitous damage at the hands of raging fires, enemy attacks and high-intensity earthquakes.

Its flat ceiling has been painted in a magical way to give an illusion of 3D bass relief work, just like what you see in the Gallery of Maps (Sistine Chapel), Vatican!

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Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India

#8. Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, India

This Buddhist monument is the oldest brick monument in the country. It was commissioned in 3rd century BCE by Emperor Ashoka and was built over the relics of Buddha.

It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.

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Bali Rice Fields

#9. Cultural Landscape of Bali Province

Volcanoes provide Bali with fertile soil. Combined with a wet tropical climate, that makes it an ideal location for crop cultivation. River water has been channelled into canals for irrigation. It allows the cultivation of rice on both flat land and mountain terraces.

Rice, water, and subak, (water-controlling cooperative social system) together have shaped the Bali landscape over the past thousand years. These are an integral part of Bali’s religious life too. As rice is seen as the gift of god, the subak system is considered part of Bali’s temple culture.

Together with their temples, five rice terraces of Bali covering an area of 19,500 hectare, became a UNESCO site in 2012.

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Polonnaruwa Buddhist Temple Ruins

#10. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

After the decimation of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka. The most illustrious king who reigned was Parakramabahu I. His reign is marked by a distinctly superior irrigation system as he was obsessed with not wasting even a drop of water that descended from heaven. It was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982. Even today, Polonnaruwa remains an important Buddhism pilgrimage site in the country.

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The intricate system of windmills for keeping the sea waters out

#11. Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

When you are living 7 metres below sea level and you do not have gills, you need to keep the sea water out of your village. The residents of Kinderdijk, a settlement that is a 25-minute speedboat ride inland from Rotterdam, deployed an ingenious technique to pump seawater out – an elaborate arrangement of 19 windmills.

Though these windmills were commissioned in the mid-eighteenth century, they are still functional. They continue to fulfill the original purpose of keeping the land dry while providing 3-storeyed living quarters to the farmers who own them. A windmill-turned-museum gives you a glimpse into the local culture and lifestyle. This well-preserved traditional innovation has earned the windmills of Kinderdijk UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997.

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One of the water bodies in Singapore Botanic Gardens

#12. Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore

Created in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens demonstrate the evolution a Pleasure Garden, to a colonial Economic Garden for research, to a world-class botanic garden that is both – a scientific institution and a place of conservation, recreation and education. This site got inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Incidentally, this is the only UNESCO site in Singapore.

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The Secretariat Building in the Capitol Complex, Chandigarh

#13. Capitol Complex, Chandigarh, India

In 2015, the architectural work of Le Corbusier got acknowledged by UNESCO as World Heritage, thanks to its outstanding contribution to the modern movement. This work is spread over 7 countries – Argentina, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Japan and Switzerland. Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex is a part of this UNESCO listing. While the Secretariat building is a typical Le Corbusier structure, the Open Hand Monument is an abstract installation in the Capitol Complex that has been adopted by the Chandigarh Administration as the symbol of the city.

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Le Morne Brabant forms the backdrop of the Crystal Rock

#14. Le Morne, Mauritius

These are two of the most recognisable spots in Mauritius! While Crystal Rock is just a fossilised coral reef, Le Morne Brabant got inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for an unfortunate reason. This monolith was a hideout for slaves who would run away from their masters. When the Abolition of Slavery Act got passed in 1853, these masters went to Le Morne to give the good news to the slaves. The slaves misunderstood the intent. They jumped and committed suicide from this cliff!

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Visitors enjoying a lazy afternoon on one of the ramparts of Galle Fort

#15. Galle Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka

Built in 1588 CE and further fortified extensively from 1649 CE onwards, the fort is a living, buzzing township with multi-cultural population. The town planning of this habitation is typical of the Dutch (a sterling example being Amsterdam). It survived the notoriously devastating tsunami that hit 14 countries on 26th December 2004. It houses a few churches, one of which has been converted in to a mosque after Muslim accession of the fort. Additionally, the fort has a clock tower and a lighthouse.

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Skogskyrkogården or Woodland Cemetery

#16. Skogskyrkogården or Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden

Few cemeteries across the globe can boast being UNESCO World Heritage sites. Skogskyrkogården is one of those. Interestingly, this cemetery got inscribed in UNESCO list because of its landmark architecture that influenced numerous cemeteries across the globe. It is a brilliant blend of terrain, vegetation, and purpose. Interred grave of Greta Garbo, the heartthrob of Hollywood in 1920s and 30s, is also here (she passed away in Manhattan).

Now, while visiting 16 of these heritage sites during the year was fascinating, here’s looking forward to 17 or more during 2017!

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Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
View from our Balcony

Background

We had made a Sea View Club Room booking with The Leela Grand, Kovalam in January 2015. The 4-night stay would have left us poorer by approx. Rs.84,000 (~US$ 1,230 – i.e. US$ 307 per night). Around then, due to its financial mess, SpiceJet was cancelling many of its flights and this news was commonplace knowledge.

Our flights on three out of the four sectors also got cancelled and thankfully, the news came to us at a time when we could cancel our room bookings without losing any monies. We did cancel but there was a regret of missing out on staying with a property with one of the finest locations anywhere.

In September 2016, we had another opportunity to visit Kovalam and we were going to stay in The Leela Grand. We stayed there and this stay prompted me to put forth an honest review for money-paying guests who may plan a stay at this property. I want them know the realities of a stay here to make a considered decision.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Infinity pool, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

“You’ll come to Kovalam with me?”

My wife was speaking at an IoT-focussed conference in Kovalam. Since the conference organisers were hosting her and they were fine with spouses coming along, she asked me if I would like to accompany her.

Her question was obviously prompted by our earlier cancellation of the Kovalam trip. Also, since Kovalam was just a spitting distance from some of the bucket list destinations, I readily agreed.

We had just returned from a 10-day Lombok-Bali trip. So, the beach was not such a big draw, but when she mentioned that we’d be staying in The Leela Grand, a hotel known for its gorgeous location, that was another ‘plus one’ to look forward to.

 

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Look down from our balcony, and you see this

First impression…

We were driven in an Audi Q3 from Thiruvananthapuram Airport to the hotel. The drive was short, but pleasant. We had a separate lounge for check-in as we were booked in their Sea View Club room (higher category room).

Since this property is on a coastal cliff, we climbed down one level to get to our room. As soon as we entered, wife and I exchanged glances and smiled. In our extensive hotel-trotting streak, we had not come across a better view from our hotel room. Though it was dark already, the waters around the property were illuminated by cool temperature LEDs installed by the hotel. And we could see and hear the waves lashing noisily against the rocks.

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Near the pool, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

I knew this property was the erstwhile ITDC Ashok hotel. And by virtue of this being a government-owned entity established much before perhaps the 300-metre no-construction-zone rule came into being, the property was literally kissing the sea.

Instead of unpacking, we just poured ourselves a drink and sat in the balcony enjoying the view and the ambience. The trance lasted a while!

Reality Check

Once we came back into the room, the challenges of this aging property started to dawn on us. The plug sockets were old and hence unreliable – you plug in a device and hope for the best that it will continue to get charged. These sockets were in sunken ports that had wooden lids. Fair enough, except a typical C, E or F type plug would normally stand upright (as against the D & M types that offer a flat plug). Result? After you plug in a device, the lid won’t close.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The lid won’t close

Interestingly, for some unknown reason, the bedside sockets were Type G! You know, those three flat pin ones? Those! The property happens to be in India, and instead of providing the type D or M, or the more modern type K, they provided type G – useful in China, Malaysia and a few other countries for sure, but rather useless here. (For understanding this weird jargon, please see the infographic).

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Plug types demystified

The bathroom was a sum total of 3 matchboxes – a shower cubicle, a WC cubicle and a washbasin cubicle. The Shower and WC cubicle doors opened outwards, naturally inconveniencing the other occupant – in case he/she happened to be washing hands or brushing teeth.

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The wallpaper was peeling off

Are you hygiene conscious?

For the hygiene-conscious, please be warned that washing hands in the washbasin is going to a hairy experience! Try as hard as you may, your hands are going to be brushing against the basin bowl as the faucet has been fixed at an angle that leaves little space for your hands.

The towels and bath mats was another crazy story. Over the next 3 days, the housekeeping would forget to leave either the face towels, or the hand towels, or the bath mat. This routine was followed every day and the entire experience left you in a advanced state of resignation.

While unpacking, my wife realised that the drawer housing the safe would not open. Once we pried it open, it was a challenge to close it. The space provided for the suitcase was barely sufficient for one large suitcase. And, it was a double occupancy room, if you please!

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Sullied view from the room – thanks to the permanent scratches and stains on the window pane

Let’s have some food

It had been a long day. Soon, we were hungry and decided to order room service. That’s when a hunt for the in-room dining menu started. After agonising for a while with various visible and concealed drawers, we concluded that they had omitted to place one in our room. We called the in-room dining and got connected to front office instead. Politely, they asked us to call the room service number again. We tried telling them that we couldn’t find the menu, and were politely told again to call room service. Fair enough!

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
The Leela Grand Beach

We called the in-room dining again and again got connected to the front office. Now, we were losing it. In no uncertain terms we told the front office guys to get their telephone system in order and while at it, to send an in-room dining menu to our room.

There’s more…

Food was ordinary. But, we are used to condoning one bad experience – knowing fully well that the cuisine we ordered may be a challenge for the chef on duty. After dinner, we again stepped out into the balcony and once we came in to call it a day, we realised the balcony door wouldn’t get locked. Naturally, we asked the operator to connect us to maintenance. She politely asked us what did we want. Upon telling her, she promised to have someone fix that soon.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Didn’t I say the view is gorgeous

After a 15-minute wait, we reminded her and soon had a maintenance guy come in. He took his time while we were quietly amusing ourselves by watching some B channel on the limited menu of channels on offer. Once he finished, I checked if the door would close, and realised that he had done whatever best he could since the door was any case in an advanced state of disrepair, and hence was unlikely to close properly. We resignedly asked him to carry on.

Well, I could go on and on. But suffice it to say that what we experienced during our first few hours was not an exception, but was a norm in this property.

Next Morning

In the morning light, we noticed a few more issues. The coastal dampness had led to a peeling wallpaper; the window glass had permanent swathes of damage that definitely didn’t do much good to your view of the nature outside. The window blinds were frayed. Over all, the indifference in maintenance was glaringly evident.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
Frayed blinds

Any reason for such indifference towards a gloriously located property?

Upon making enquiries with the staffers, we realised the Leela Group had sold the hotel to some Ravi Group. When I checked on the Internet, it showed that though it sold the property in 2011, it is still being managed by HLVL (Hotel Leela Ventures Ltd.). While HLVL still continues to make money hand over fist milking its superbly unique location, they seem to have little or no interest in ploughing back any of this money into the upkeep since the property does not belong to them anymore.

What further surprises me is that this property won the Best Indian Luxury Hotel in India Award in 2015 – an award by Lonely Planet India.

Sooner, than later, the news of their mismanagement is likely to reach the market. The earlier that happens, the better. If it doesn’t, chances are the property reviews by traveller are going to hurt not just this one property, but also the entire chain. And, it will turn out to be a huge PR nightmare for this classy chain.

Why Avoid Sea View Club Room, The Leela Grand, Kovalam

When you stay with a group property of a renowned chain like the Leela that is known for its impeccable attention to detail, you are naturally paying an arm and a leg as room tariff. We were just plain lucky as we didn’t have to pay it since we were hosted. So, as a money-paying guest, the least you expect is that the property will have basic 5-star amenities and fittings in the room would work. When they don’t, and instead begin to fall apart, you get up with a start and take notice.

And after all, in 2015, we did commit US$1230 for our stay there! We were so glad we didn’t end up paying that amount at that time.

Avoid Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam
I saw this facade in an advertisement in the 80’s

Chances are many of my readers would pay a king’s ransom to stay there. It is only fair that they at least are made aware of how things work or NOT work there. As they say, forewarned is forearmed!

In case any of you faced a similar experience here, kindly feel free to share as a comment. I will incorporate your comment as an independent review into this post itself.

Sea View Club Room The Leela Grand Kovalam

 

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A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
A view from my balcony

TBEX Asia 2016 took me to Manila. I was a speaker there – my topic being Architectural Photography (For those who may ask – “What is TBEX?” – well, TBEX is the largest conference and networking event for travel bloggers, online travel journalists, new media content creators, travel brands and industry professionals). Once I was in Manila, my mind went through a roller coaster of thoughts. Go on, read about them!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes

I was on a ‘Smoking in Balcony Only’ floor of Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila. It was evening when I checked in. So, I opened the blinds and stepped out into the balcony for a smoke. Voila! A stunning cityscape greeted me! Beautifully illuminated high-rise, a couple of merry-go-rounds draped in psychedelic lights, a seemingly-reclaimed peninsula jutting into the bay, much greenery and smoothly gliding traffic – everything that marks a throbbing, buzzing town, was there!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Another view from the same balcony

Later that evening, we had to travel to Hotel Shangri-La at the Fort. A quick Google Search revealed a horrendous truth – this 9.9-kilometer journey would take us over an hour! I suddenly became present to the horrors of ‘smoothly gliding traffic’ in Manila! But, thanks to the police escort provided by Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), Philippines, we reached in 30 minutes!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Just after rains

Next morning, we were to visit an Island that held strategic importance during WW-II – Corregidor Island. The gory events of WW-II have turned this island into one of the ‘Top 10’ haunted Islands of the world – mainly because of mass suicides by Japanese soldiers in Malinta Tunnel.

For more on Corregidor Island, visit Eerie, not abandoned – Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
They do this every day

As we reached the Sun Cruises Jetty, a delightful sight warmed our hearts. Scores of serious cycling enthusiasts were zipping around the place. They were engaged in their morning routine of completing their own personal targets of exer-cycling. And the road was a blurry riot of their colourful attire!

The Photo Walk Route

These initial glimpses were exciting! TBEX folks had requested that I conduct their pre-TBEX Photo Walk next morning. But then, October normally has moody weather in Manila. It falls bang in the middle of the Typhoon season. There was a threat of rain. A typhoon named Sarika (local name – Karen) was threatening to hit Luzon, the island on which Manila is.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
In the distance – Manila Port

This reality was making TPB veer towards caution. They did not want the Photo Walk disrupted by high winds and a downpour. They suggested we do our Photo Walk in an area dotted with shopping malls – Bonifacio Global City.

Having read a little about Manila and having chatted with our guide to Corregidor Island, I requested that the Photo Walk route be changed. I proposed that we flag off from Bayleaf Hotel as this property has a viewing terrace that gives a panoramic view of Manila and its Spanish walled city called Intramuros.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Erstwhile moat along the city wall – now a posh golf course, courtesy the Americans

From there, continue our walk on the famed city wall of Intramuros. Then, proceed to check out the San Agustin Church (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and round off the walk at Casa Manila – a heritage house that showcases the colonial lifestyle. Despite their weather-related misgivings, TPB was pleased with the route as it showcased the real Manila! And, without much persuasion, they agreed!

A Photo Walk to Remember

After a night of pouring rain, the day of the Photo Walk presented a bright sunshine – the type not seen in Manila for days! I guess the elements were with us!

The usual police escort whizzed us past the US Embassy en route Bayleaf and we were chaperoned by the hotel reception personnel to their gorgeous viewing terrace. The view around accorded us a visual understanding of Intramuros and its surroundings. One side presented the Manila Port while the other showed us the colonial quarters! The view was totally breathtaking!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The wide city wall we walked on

A few hundred photographs and a refreshing iced tea later, the group stepped out to climb up the city wall. Post-rain high humidity made its presence felt – especially for those who wore grey Tees, with sweat visible all over!

But this humidity was not going to dampen the spirits of the group. They charged on regardless, admiring the moat along the city wall that is now a stunning golf course created by the Americans and the Jolly Bee tableaus spreading some jollity and bonhomie along the way! Ronnie, our guide, told us Jolly Bee is the most successful example of entrepreneurship in Philippines – a fast food chain even McDonald’s hasn’t been able to challenge!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Manila University

Surprise, Surprise!

Walking on the wall, we went past Manila University and suddenly found our way blocked by a gate! Even our guide seemed surprised by this little barrier. Surely, it was a new development. We backtracked, got down to the street and walked back to enter ‘Baluarte de San Diego Gardens’. Inside the garden was a 16th-century rampart that was constructed to fend off the high-frequency attacks by the Chinese pirates.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The rampart of San Diego

The gardens were beautiful. Here, our guide pointed out an insignificant-looking ornamental plant called Manila Hemp or Abaca. He told us it is used to make the paper on which Filipino currency is printed!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Photo Walkers

By now, the heat and humidity were visibly affecting the group. Sensing that, TPB pulled another surprise out of their invisible witch-hat. We were treated to ‘Sorbetes’ (Filipino for Ice Cream) – that too, in a shaded cabana, well-covered with huge trees!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Sorbetes cart

Suddenly reinvigorated, the group refused the offer of getting into the van and instead, chose to walk to San Agustin Church, the star of the day’s walk. In a way, it was good, as we stumbled upon the gallery of the Philippines Presidents as we walked!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Presidents’ Gallery
A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Casa Manila courtyard – here, photography is permitted
A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Ornate entrance gate of San Agustin Church

Art meets Heritage

San Agustin Church remains closed for lunch from 12noon to 1 pm. And that was the time when we reached there. Our guide steered us towards Casa Manila, the colonial lifestyle museum, to meaningfully utilise the time till the church opened. Like many museums, photography inside Casa Manila is not permitted. Since we were on a Photo Walk, we spent minimal time here. But what we saw during that brief while, sure gave us a good idea about the colonial lifestyle.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Inside San Agustin Church

We entered San Agustin Church sharp at 1 pm. While being ushered through history, Ronnie talked about the superlative work of art that adorns the church ceiling. He talked of how flat ceiling has been painted in a magical way to give an illusion of 3D bass relief work, just like what you see in the Gallery of Maps (Sistine Chapel), Vatican!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
3D or 2D?

The church building does not only seem imposing and indestructible, it truly is. It has withstood repeated calamitous damage at the hands of raging fires, enemy attacks and high-intensity earthquakes.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Crypt inside San Agustin formerly called the De Profundis Hall

Back to the future

As we exited San Agustin, we were herded into our transport to return to the conference venue. Since Ronnie had endlessly talked about an air conditioned church (The Manila Cathedral), the group requested for a quick, short, stop there. Though the air conditioning makes Manila Cathedral sought-after for weddings, it is notoriously jinxed and normally results in divorces!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Awesome stained glass work inside San Agustin

Over the next few days, TBEX conference kept us busy. But the evening parties were taking us places – from Chaos in City of Dreams to The Blue Leaf in Aseana to the Long Bar in Raffles, Makati. The drive to these venues showed us the buzz that is Manila!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Manila Cathedral

I can broadly conclude that this little bit of Manila in my life has been addictive. Leaving Manila has given me cold turkey. Hence, I am resolved to be back here sooner than later, for more of my Manila fix!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
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Eerie, not abandoned – Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines

Eerie, not abandoned – Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines

TBEX Asia 2016 was recently held in Manila. Just before it commenced, Tourism Promotions Board, Philippines organised a pre-TBEX tour for us to Corregidor Island.

As the first line of defense for Manila (Luzon Island), Corregidor was of strategic importance during WW-II. Additionally, it was an important WW-II base for the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
WW-II Ruins of Corregidor Island

Eerie, not abandoned – Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
Malinta Tunnel entrance

Besides other ruins that tell the WW-II story of Far East, Malinta Tunnel bored as a shaft under Malinta Hill, is an important landmark here. Interestingly, sparse resources were used to build this tunnel. These included expired TNT, obsolete equipment, convicted labour, and Japanese cement. Its construction finished in 1932.

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
Malinta Tunnel layout plan

Architecturally, the general layout of the tunnel comprises the main artery (similar to a petiole of a leaf) with numerous laterals branching out as the veins of a leaf would. Overall, despite an all-pervading eeriness of this tunnel, it has not been abandoned given its historical significance. Instead, the Philippines government has accorded it the status of a national historical treasure.

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
A diorama of a 1000-bed hospital created inside Malinta Tunnel

While the tunnel was constructed as a bombproof shelter for the army personnel and ordnance, it was used as a 1000-bed hospital during the heightened action of WW-II. Here, many soldiers died before the Japanese army forced the US and Filipino soldiers to surrender on May 6, 1942.

How fierce was the Battle of Corregidor?

Very. The WW-II records show that in a single 5-hour stretch, 1.8 million pounds of explosives rained on the island. And an estimate of the loss of life here during this battle? Over 900 Japanese soldiers and over 800 US and Filipino soldiers.

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
Drinks and cards – non-war routine of the soldiers

Subsequently, the island was retaken by the US forces on the night of February 23, 1945, by blocking off the tunnel exit through continuous gunfire. As a result, over 3000 Japanese soldiers committed mass suicide by detonating explosives inside the tunnel – one of the largest instances of a mass suicide. Till today, the Philippines government has not excavated the laterals damaged by these detonations.

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
Radio communication equipment from WW-II

Attention! Ghosts Ahoy!

Today, legend has it that ghosts haunt the tunnel – thanks to many traumatised people having died here. In fact, Corregidor Island features amongst many ‘top 10’ lists of haunted islands.

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
Life of the forces in the tunnel

Today, Malinta Tunnel is the venue of a Sound & Light show that recreates the events of WW-II. For this purpose, many permanent dioramas have been placed here. These depict the routine life of soldiers in the tunnel, their pastimes, the important events that happened on this battle stage, the conversion of the tunnel into a 1000-bed hospital, etc.

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
A mute testimony to the events of WW-II
Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines
View as we exit the tunnel…

These days, only Sun Cruises can organise a trip to Corregidor Island. They conduct a day/overnight trip to the island. Cost-wise, the day trip is PHP 2100 approx. while the overnight trip sets you back an additional PHP 1500.

Traveller friends, if you are fond of exploring the WW-II sites or are fascinated by the paranormal, do visit Corregidor Island. After all, It is just a stone’s throw away from Manila!

Eerie, not abandoned - Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines

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Discover how it is carved in stone – Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Discover how it is carved in stone – Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

My image has appeared in Radar section of October 2016 issue of JetWings Domestic, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (Domestic sectors).

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

It is said that this stunning structure, Rani-ki-Vav (The Queen’s Stepwell), was built in 11th century as a tribute to the king and founder of the Solanki Dynasty by his widowed wife, Udayamati. This 64 metre-long stepwell is seven levels deep and is embellished with over 1,500 statues. The stacking of statues on the levels as you go down the stepwell is conceptually an inversion of a typical temple that pays obeisance to water. These sculptures mostly depict Vishnu’s different avatars and the traditional solah shringaar (16 styles of adornments). Rani-ki-Vav made its way into the UNESCO Heritage List in 2014, for its outstanding architecture and creativity, and is an absolute must-see site in Gujarat.

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

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Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
The Facade of Ramgarh Heritage

A week back, I received an invitation from a PR agency on behalf of Ramgarh Heritage, a Rajasthani heritage property in Panchkula – they were going to host me for a couple of nights. Though I accepted the invitation, my mind was throwing up a few pertinent questions. On more than one occasion, I have found myself trapped in the so-called pseudo-Rajasthani boutique resorts; will this be another such instance? Or, Chandigarh folks reserve similar disdain for Panchkula that Mumbai townies reserve for the ‘burbs (suburbs); so, should I even consider visiting Panchkula?

All the same, the deed was done. I had accepted their hosting invitation. So, on the scheduled date, I got on to the 5.15 pm evening Chandigarh Shatabdi – a comfortable fast train that sets out from New Delhi station and takes you to Chandigarh in three and a half hours. The folks from Ramgarh Heritage received me at Chandigarh Railway Station.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
A portrait of one of the ancestors of Chandail family

Spot of Rajasthan en route Hills of Himachal

A 25-minute drive took us to the resort. Customary check-in formalities followed. The reception was plain-Jane. But as soon as I stepped out of the reception block, an imposing off-white façade with terracotta-red borders and characteristic Rajasthani domes stared me in my face. There was a well-manicured lawn to my left and a huge Bunyan tree to my right!

I was guided past the Bunyan tree to the Dining Area called Diwankhana that also offers an al fresco dining option. Being a smoker, I decided to avail of it. There, two elegant ladies from the PR agency joined me. Over drinks and dinner, they shared some information about the property and the family who had created it with their labour of love.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Authentic Rajasthani flavour – the Ravanhatta player from Rajasthan

While the information sounded fascinating, I chose to reserve my judgement till I had personally seen the property, more particularly, the room. A couple of things I did not reserve my judgement on though was the food and the entertainment. The fare was delicious and truly Rajasthani, and the folksinger hailed from a famous Rajasthani folk singer family. His mastery over Ravanhatta, a traditional Rajasthani instrument, was remarkable!

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
My room

Ethnic Modernity or Modern Ethnicity

After the meal, a resort staffer escorted me to my room. As soon as I entered the room, its ambience and aesthetics struck me as both – elegantly ethnic and comfortably modern. The room was spacious, its furnishings, tasteful, and its layout, utilitarian! A quick peep into the bathroom, and my mind was completely at rest!

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
A comfortable lounge for use of guests!

The hosts had planned a village visit for me the next morning. But that was changed to a visit to Nada Sahib, a well-revered Sikh shrine close to the resort, as previous day’s unseasonal rain meant that the village roads would be mucky and not fit for a comfortable walk. I was told this village/Sikh shrine visit is an option they offer to all guests who stay with them.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
7 generations of Chandails

Upon our return, a pleasant and humble young man, Jaideep, greeted us. I was told that the Ramgarh Heritage is his home that he’s opened up for discerning travellers and he is the son of Sardar Sahib Jagdeep Singh, the head of a branch of the Chandail family that has a 900-year history as erstwhile rulers of Bilaspur.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
The lobby in Ramgarh Heritage, where the guests may relax

A touch of history

Over the next three hours, Jaideep took us around his ‘home’ that now welcomes travellers. Compared to any large hotel, this ‘home’ may not be too large, but the history that lies sprinkled around here sure is. From ancient, to medieval to ‘Raj’ days to modern, it actually is a mirror that reflects the larger picture of the history of our entire country.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Old manuscripts

From the 325-year-old Bunyan tree to a century-old kitchen utensils, from the manuscripts penned over 150 years back to the Viceregal invite to the Coronation Hall when it was resolved that the capital of India would formally move from Calcutta (known as Kolkata today) to Delhi, every artifact that adorns this restored home tells a story steeped in history of not just the Chandail family, but our entire country. When I asked about the Rajasthan connection of the family, Jaideep told me that this connection is through his maternal grandmother.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Deer on the ceiling – one of the many masterpieces created by the skilled Samod artists

A Labour of Love

This conducted visit through the history of this home made me marvel at the time, effort, resources, and love that had gone into its restoration. To create the authentic Rajasthani feel, skilled Samod painters had worked for months to adorn the walls and ceilings of the various rooms and common areas and had created magic with their art. Since words may not do justice to the kind of art conjured up here, have a look at the images I shot of this wizardry.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal

While a panel displays the seven generations of the family, the stained glass work in Lotus and Peacock suites demonstrate the aesthetic bent of these multiple generations. Shikargaah, the bar, is adorned with spent 12 Bore shells from the hunting era, its walls  tastefully decorated with hunting trophies and the bar stools are made with empty gun shells and saddles. The entire place reflects the lifestyle of royalty over the last few centuries. Additionally, a Victorian building built in 1937 (Jagdish Kuti), also boasts a few heritage rooms that offer a further royal feel to the guests.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Jagdish Kuti
spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Shikargaah, the bar

In some earlier times, Chandail family used to own elephants. These elephants used to reside in Gajagraha, an area now converted into a banquets area that houses a cute splash pool. The lawns outside, called Baara, are used for banquets, weddings, and corporate dos. This improvisation makes Ramgarh Heritage a well-suited location for destination weddings as well as for conferences.

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
The splash pool in Gajagraha
spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
Inside Peacock Suite

Grab a surprise

Our lunch and dinner further strengthened my earlier observation that the cuisine was authentic when ‘papad curry’, ‘gatte ki sabzi’ and ‘Lal Maans’ prepared with closely guarded family recipe was served. By the end of my stay in Ramgarh Heritage, I was convinced that it truly is a spot of Rajasthan en route hills of Himachal. Next time, as and when the hills of Himachal call you, do break your journey here and get surprised for yourself and discover this mini-Rajasthan in Haryana, just next to Chandigarh!

spot-of-rajasthan-en-route-hills-of-himachal
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Lombok – Bali of 70s

Lombok – Bali of 70s

lombok-bali-70s
The Oberoi Lombok jetty

Here’s a sneak peak into Part-I of my series on Indonesia that appears in October issue of Smart Photography!

Lombok – Bali of 70s

In our second visit to Indonesia, we added Lombok to our itinerary. Since we had some free nights with Oberoi Hotels, the key reason that led to this choice was the presence of an Oberoi property on this island.

lombok-bali-70s
Jetty at Bali

After a short layover in Singapore, we landed in Bali. Though the flying time was just 8 hours and the layover around 2.5 hours, we decided to spend the night in Bali as we had flown through the night and were tired because of lack of proper sleep.

lombok-bali-70s
Gili Trawangan

We were booked on a Blue Waters fast boat to Lombok the next morning. It took 45 minutes to reach the jetty. The check in process was hassle-free and our bags were loaded into the baggage hold of the boat. Once the boat left Bali, I decided to park myself on the top deck since it promised a better vantage for photography. The boat crew also mentioned that since the sea was calm, I could take my camera up as seawater splashes would be unlikely.

lombok-bali-70s
Gili Air

Bali to Lombok

We were travelling east from Bali, and soon, the mist covered mountains of North East Bali started to provide us company to the left of the boat. While we were enjoying the scene, suddenly a roar went up in the boat. We had company! A large dolphin family had decided to escort our boat!

Our boat made its first stop at Gili Trawangan. The etymology of this name is two Indonesian words – Gili = small island and Trawangan = derived from Terowongan that means tunnel. The island has a tunnel from the WWII era when it was under Japanese occupation.

lombok-bali-70s
Speed boats for fun rides

Like all the other Gili islands, even here, no automobiles and motorised vehicles are permitted. Walking and cycling, therefore, are the preferred modes of going about. While we were docked at Gili Trawangan, we found a few more boats docking and spewing out scores of tourists. It sure seemed like a favoured place for backpackers since the island has many hotels that offer the opportunity to chill in the form of cottages, a small pool and a shack-like restaurant with cheap liquor and loud music for the visitors.

lombok-bali-70s
A sunset in Lombok

And we reach Lombok!

It was another 10 minutes to Lombok. My first glimpse of Lombok made me fall in love with it. The island had a thick green vegetation cover and the waters around were a deep shade of blue!

The first impression was not wrong. Once we disembarked, and left the jetty, we found the greenery accompanying us all along our drive, with the exception of the breaks in greenery filling our eyes with the deep blue of Lombok Strait.

lombok-bali-70s
An infinity pool in Rinjani Resort

The Oberoi, Lombok is located in the North West of the island, just about 20 minutes away from the Teluk Kode jetty. The facilities and the view took our breath away. And, as always, their hospitality was quiet efficiency personified.

lombok-bali-70s
Selfie time at Sendang Gile waterfall

Let’s look at Lombok!

We looked around for things to do in Lombok. What caught our fancy were a couple of waterfalls in the lap of nature. Sendang Gile waterfall and Tiu Kelep waterfall are located around Mount Rinjani, a volcano that offers a challenging three-day trek to its peak and back.

lombok-bali-70s
Tiu Kelep waterfall

After a 90-minute drive, we started a trek to the waterfalls under the shadow of the volcano. The trek was similar to the one I had undertaken to Bee Falls in Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh. We climbed down about 400 steps along a system of canals that is the lifeline of this fresh-water deprived island.

After 20-25 minutes of descent, as we made a turn, suddenly, this breathtaking waterfall filled the sight. Water in Sendang Gile waterfall falls from a height of 30 metres. The visitors were splashing around the base of the fall and were having a great time.

lombok-bali-70s
Tourists at Tiu Kelep waterfall

From here, we backtracked a bit and took off for a slightly more strenuous trek towards Tiu Kelep waterfall. This trek took us over half an hour. During this trek, we also walked through the stream formed by the waterfall. As the equatorial weather was kind, the experience of walking in the jungle was a pleasant one.

The Waterfalls

While Sendang Gile is a plunge waterfall, Tiu Kelep is a segmented one. If you arrive here anytime after midday and the sun is out, chances are you would be seeing a striking rainbow near the base of the fall.

Climb back to the top was hard but joyful since the vistas of nature were all around us. During our walk back along the small canal, we came across some village kids having fun the flowing water. Another interesting yet common sight was the locals patiently sitting and fishing.

lombok-bali-70s
Crossing the stream to get to Tiu Kelep waterfall

More Lombok

Over the next couple of days, we went around to the fishing village along the coast of Lombok and some farming villages surrounded by rice plantations. In addition to some contribution from tourism, the primary occupation of the island seemed to be were revolving around agriculture and fishing.

lombok-bali-70s
A fishermen village in Lombok

While chatting with the local guide, we figured that Lombok is what Bali used to be in the 70s – a hamlet of nature and a haven of simplicity. The natives face hardships with grace and their smiles are genuine. Anyone who is planning a visit to Indonesia would do well to include Lombok in his itinerary. It is as close to nature as you can ever hope to get.

lombok-bali-70s
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Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

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Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

A camera phone for those who don’t dig photography?

By virtue of my being a travel photographer, be it an offline traveller gathering or an online travel forum, I normally face a simple enough question from my traveller friends who do not enjoy struggling with the technical aspects of photography. The question is – “For me, photography is a tedious chore. But, I still need to have images of the destinations I travel to. So, which reasonably priced phone camera may I use during my travels?”

Seemingly a simple question, I would normally find myself at a loss to recommend any one single reasonably priced phone camera. Reason: I am an iPhone user and have not really used even my iPhone camera for capturing images.

When Asus approached me to review their ZenFone 3, I felt I could correct the above situation. I got a ZenFone 3 from Asus on the eve of my departure to Bali and Lombok. I decided to take it for a spin to Indonesia.

Clearly, I only had the above oft-asked question in my mind and I wanted to have an answer. The phone arrived with links to its online literature and a list of features. The camera part of the features mentioned a 16MP rear (primary) camera and an 8MP front (secondary) camera. In theory, such numbers sound great, but as a photographer, I view them with suspicion.

So here I was in a couple of idyllic Indonesian Islands, with an unfamiliar gizmo and a few doubts in my mind. I wanted to test drive this stylish, sleek, shiny, shimmer gold phone for its photography abilities and see for myself if it makes the cut to be recommended.

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

Zen Stress

I decided to subject ZenFone 3 to a stress test I normally reserve for hi-end point & shoot cameras or an entry/mid-level DSLR. And, I decided to do it for its capability of capturing stills (I am not a videographer, remember!?). I don’t click ‘selfies’ either, so I skipped that too. For this test, my chosen parameters were as follows:

  1. How does it perform in high dynamic range and low-light conditions
  2. How does it perform in auto mode (since my friends who ask the question are not comfortable about the technical bits like shooting modes, etc.)
  3. If there is any trouble capturing something in auto mode, how does ZenPhone 3 camera handle the shot in a manual mode (it is only fair to assess it even if my friends are not comfortable using various different modes)
  4. Though the camera does NOT have a dedicated sports mode, it boasts a fast processor – Quote-Unquote

    World’s First 14nm Snapdragon processor with 64-Bit Octa-Core CPU @2.0Ghz : S625 is much more powerful than previous generation thanks to new full 8 core @ 2.0Ghz. 2016 S625 is around the same level of performance of 2015 S800 series (For a detailed features list, click here).

    So I wanted to assess its responsiveness to burst shooting.

  5. Since it shoots only JPGs, how would those JPGs react to some editing I consider necessary to bring out the best in an image?

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

So, let’s see how ZenPhone 3 did in this wicked test!

  1. High Dynamic Range Handling: A usual issue when shooting outdoors is a very bright sky that forces most cameras to considerably darken the landscape if it captures the sky well. I shot many landscapes and found that it handles this difficult-to-manage issue pretty well. Full marks here.
    Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust
  2. Auto Mode: I used auto mode for most of my shooting with ZenFone 3. And, the results were crisp, colours good and overall image pleasing! No complaints here.
    Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust
  3. Switching to manual mode: In one indoor shot, I faced the issue of a sub-optimal capture in auto mode. Switching to manual mode got me a result I wanted. So, all in all, you can make it work for you!
  4. Burst mode performance: I shot a test sequence of a rider on a bike. The result was fine and its claim of a fast processor seems sound!
  5. Editing the JPGs: I always edit my images to address excessive highlights, lack of details in dark areas, saturation, etc. (For a detailed step-by-step guide to how I edit my images in Lightroom, please see my Lightroom guide – Using Lightroom – A Simple Workflow). I did the same with the JPGs shot with ZenFone 3 and it handled the edits pretty well (see the result below). So, though it doesn’t shoot raw, its JPGs can withstand a fair bit of editing.

So, what do I feel? – The Verdict

I started with trepidation. But after the photography-related tests I conducted on Asus ZenFone 3, I have the faith that I won’t be wrong in recommending this phone to my camera-phobic friends as their go-to camera, particularly for their outdoor imaging needs during their travels; more so, since this phone-camera costs Rs.~22k as against the other known phone-cameras costing about 2-3 times the price.

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