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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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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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Lombok – Bali of 70s

Lombok – Bali of 70s

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

Asus ZenFone 3 – From trepidation to trust

This post has affiliate links. While these links help me run this site and provide free content to my readers, my views remain completely unbiased.

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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