Friday, December 26, 2014

Pushkar-The king of pilgrimages

About 130 kms from the state capital of Jaipur and 14 kms north-west of the city of Ajmer is the Hindu holy town of Pushkar. The town is famed for its temples, especially the one dedicated to the God of Creation of the Hindu pantheon, Lord Brahma, the beautiful sacred lake Pushkar and the annual camel fair. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state of Rajasthan and is frequented by local as well foreign tourists all the year round.

Though small in size, 'Tirtharaj' or the king of pilgrimages, Pushkar offers you ample activities to indulge in, when here, in an assortment of  spheres be it religious, adventure, leisure, shopping or off the beaten track.

Listed below is a personal top things to do when in Pushkar, one of the oldest towns in India:

1) A visit to the Brahma Temple- The temple, the only of its kind in the world, is bereft of any exquisite carvings or artwork as found in most other temples in India, but as you climb up the stairs of the temple complex and reach the orangish domed main temple of the creator, the simplicity and spirituality of the place strikes you. Thronged by devotees most of the time, the place overwhelms you and exudes an attraction that is way beyond words. There are quite a few underground chambers within the temple complex that are dedicated to gods and goddesses from the Hindu mythology, especially Mahadeva or Shiva, the Lord of Destruction.

2) Shop in the narrow lanes- There are a number of shops lined along the main road which leads you to the Brahma Temple that sell souvenirs exclusive to Pushkar. You can shop for things ranging from local artifacts, paintings that depict the local culture to paintings of international icons like Bob Marlow. Some of the shops cater specifically to the tastes and needs of foreign tourists and hence don’t be surprised if you find signboards in foreign languages from Chinese to Hebrew, in the shops.

3) Go on an ecotrail or a camel safari- Pushkar is surrounded by the beautiful Aravali ranges on one hand and the Thar Desert tries to embrace it on the other. Thus, Pushkar provides you with a very unique option of going on trails in the wilderness on one hand and ambling on a desert safari saddled on camel back, on the other.

4) Sample a wide variety of cuisines- The holy town of Pushkar is dotted with restaurants that serve you a complete range of cuisine from around the world. It is not uncommon to find street side shops selling hummus, falafel, momos, noodles, pizzas along with traditional Indian food like paranthas, pooris and sabzi. Cafes and restaurants dot the embankments of the sacred Lake of Pushkar.

5) A dip in the holy waters of Lake Pushkar- A visit to Pushkar is incomplete without a dip in the holy waters of the “Sarovar”. The picturesque ancient lake which is surrounded by 52 ghats is among the most sacred of places for the Hindus and a dip in it especially during Kartik Poornima (October/November) is thought to be very auspicious.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Chinese Dragon Festival

During the long, hot days of summer, when the sun never sleeps and the insects thrive, it is not uncommon for disease to spread and pestilence to run loose. On the eve of the summer solstice, this is the cause and reasoning behind the Chinese festival known as the “Duan Wu Jie”, or Dragon Boat Festival. The Double Fifth Festival – as it is also commonly referred to – falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar year of the Chinese calendar, as its namesake suggests. This, along with the Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, make up the three major Chinese holidays and most celebrated Hong Kong events . In fact, the Duan Wu Festival has the longest history of any other Chinese holiday. And in 2008, for the first time since 1949, the government declared the day of the Duan Wu Festival to be a national public holiday.

The Dragon Boat Festival obviously has its name taken from the fact that every year during this time Dragon Boat races are held in rivers and lakes throughout China, as a way to fight off disease and bring in good luck and good health in the coming year. It has come so far as to already become an actual sport all around the globe. But in China its sole purpose is for tradition and good health in the coming year. The festival is celebrated by most other countries with significant Chinese background such as Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong . And it has its own East Asian counterparts such as the Kodomo no hi in Japan, Dano in Korea, and T?t Ðoan Ng? in Vietnam, each with their own cultural variations.

One of the major parts of the festival includes the eating of “zong zi”, which consists of delectable sticky rice triangles wrapped in bamboo leaves. The drinking of Realgar wine, or “xionghuangjiu”, is also an integral part of the festival, as it speaks to those who wish to watch their health and be merry for the coming year. In Taiwan, there is a tradition known as “fetching noon water” wherein at the strike of noon people from all over will draw water from the well in hopes that it will cleanse them and prevent disease in the coming year. Such is the belief that the Gods can grant them good health in the coming year that it is customary for them to hang up icons of Zhong Kui to guard them from evil, as well as the hanging of mugwort and calamus, taking day strolls as to cleanse the body of illness, and making the children wear sachets of perfume around their necks to ward off the evil spirits. This makes it one of the most visible events in Hong Kong.

The festival is said by many to have its origins in the story of Qu Yuan, a poet and a minister of the Chu state during the warring states period. He committed suicide in exile after he was wrongly accused of treason. In his honor, the Chu people threw sticky rice dumplings into the river where he drowned himself. This is what led to the eating of zong zi and the throwing of it into rivers throughout China, so as to feed him in the afterlife. And boaters used paddles to try and ward off the fish from eating his corpse. Such was his love for his country that the Republic of China now considers the “Duan Wu Jie” festival as the National Poet’s Day.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Khao Lak

Think of a beach getaway in Thailand and chances are somewhere like Phuket or the Phi Phi Islands springs to mind. While amazing, these places are tourist hotspots, which means they're not necessarily the best choice if a bit of peace and quiet is what you're after. Khao Lak, however, is another matter.

You'll find Khao Lak mainly in the Takua Pa District (though it's also partly in the Thai Mueang District), where it stands as a much quieter, more secluded destination than nearby Phuket.

Khao Lak is home to a series of stunning beaches, which are backed by forested hills. The town itself, which sits behind the beaches, isn't as scenic as the coastline, so I'd recommend picking one of the many luxurious seaside hotels (you can check out your options at Hayes and Jarvis). As well as beach-based attractions, Khao Lak is fringed by some spectacular national parks, while it's also a good base for exploring local islands.

Let's talk about some of those national parks I mentioned a moment ago. Without doubt, you should definitely aim to visit Khao Lak/Lam Ru National Park, which is the area just to the south of Khao Lak beach. At around 125 sq km in size, it certainly gives you an awful lot to explore, and it's pretty much guaranteed to be a hit with nature lovers.

For instance, you can see creatures like tapirs, gibbons, barking deer, hill myna, drongos and monkeys. In terms of scenery, prepare to be wowed by mountains like Khao Lak, Khao Plai Bang To and Khao Saeng Thong, as well as cliffs, estuaries and beaches. If you fancy finding out more about the local flora and fauna, by the way, I thoroughly recommend going on one of the guided Namtok. Ton Chong Fa Nature Trails, which span 5 and 7 km.

As a quick tip, I'd recommend popping into the visitor centre too - there's a restaurant here that has gorgeous sea views. Also worth visiting is Khao Sok National Park. For me, the highlight of this place is definitely Elephant Hills, where you can do things like meet elephants and go on jungle treks - perfect for adventure lovers!

Chances are that if you're planning to visit somewhere like Khao Lak, you're pretty keen on spending some time either sunning yourself on the beach or trying a few water sports. In my opinion, one of the absolute best things to do here is go scuba diving - not only can you see stunning coral and amazing creatures like rays, turtles and more, but there's also a wide array of diving options to choose from.

For instance, a lot of the companies here offer 'live-aboards' (for those of you who haven't done this kind of thing before, these are where you have at least an overnight stay on a ship, though these usually span several nights) - Sea Dragon Dive Center and Similan Diving Safaris are just two examples. You can also simply opt to go on day trips to places like the nearby Similan Islands for snorkelling or scuba diving.

There's plenty of scope for excitement when staying on dry land, too. One of the top options is check out the network of beach trails that runs between Khao Lak and Bang Suk, many of which lead to deserted, paradise-like beaches. You can walk these, but it's also fun to explore them by motorbike (you'll find it easy to hire one locally).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Obon in Japan

Obon is one of the most important Japanese traditions. People believe that their ancestors' spirits come back to their homes to be reunited with their family during Obon and pray for the spirits. For the reason, Obon is an important family gathering time, and many people return to their hometowns.

Obon was originally celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. Obon periods are nowadays different in various regions of Japan. In most regions, Obon is celebrated around August 15, and it typically begins 13th and ends 16th of August. In some areas in Tokyo, Obon is celebrated around July 15, and it is still celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar in many areas in Okinawa.

Japanese people clean their houses and place a variety of food offerings such as vegetables and fruits to the spirits of ancestors in front of a butsudan (Buddhist altar). Chochin lanterns and arrangements of flower are usually placed by the butsudan.

On the first day of Obon, chochin lanterns are lit inside houses, and people go to their family's grave to call their ancestors' spirits back home. It's called mukae-bon. In some regions, fires called mukae-bi are lit at the entrances of houses to guide the spirits. On the last day, people bring the ancestor's spirits back to the grave, hanging chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits. It's called okuri-bon. In some regions, fires called okuri-bi are lit at entrances of houses to send the ancestors' spirits. During Obon, the smell of senko incense fills Japanese houses and cemeteries.

Toro nagashi (floating lanterns) is a tradition often observed during Obon. People send off their ancestors' spirits with the lanterns, lit by a candle inside and floated down a river to the ocean. Also, bon odori (folk dance) is widely practiced on Obon nights. Styles of dance vary from area to area, but usually Japanese taiko drums keep the rhythms. People go to their neighborhood bon odori held at parks, gardens, shrines, or temples, wearing yukata (summer kimono) and dance around a yagura stage. Anyone can participate in bon odori, so join the circle and imitate what others are doing.

Obon is not a Japanese national holiday, but many people take vacations during this time. Mid-August is the peak travel season in summer.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Taj Mahal - Indian Pearl

The Taj Mahal looms fairytale-like from the banks of the Yamuna River. It's India’s most recognized monument and is also one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Taj Mahal has a rich history dating back to 1630 AD. It’s actually a tomb that contains the body of Mumtaz Mahal -- the wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. He had it built as an ode to his love for her. It's made out of marble and took 22 years and 20 000 workers to complete. Words cannot do the Taj Mahal justice, its incredible detail simply has to be seen to be appreciated.

The Taj Mahal is located in Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, approximately 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Delhi. It's part of India's popular Golden Triangle tourist circuit.

The Taj stands on a raised, square platform (186 x 186 feet) with its four corners truncated, forming an unequal octagon. The architectural design uses the interlocking arabesque concept, in which each element stands on its own and perfectly integrates with the main structure. It uses the principles of self-replicating geometry and a symmetry of architectural elements.

Its central dome is fifty-eight feet in diameter and rises to a height of 213 feet. It is flanked by four subsidiary domed chambers. The four graceful, slender minarets are 162.5 feet each. The entire mausoleum (inside as well as outside) is decorated with inlaid design of flowers and calligraphy using precious gems such as agate and jasper. The main archways, chiseled with passages from the Holy Qur’an and the bold scroll work of flowery pattern, give a captivating charm to its beauty. The central domed chamber and four adjoining chambers include many walls and panels of Islamic decoration.

The mausoleum is a part of a vast complex comprising of a main gateway, an elaborate garden, a mosque (to the left), a guest house (to the right), and several other palatial buildings. The Taj is at the farthest end of this complex, with the river Jamuna behind it. The large garden contains four reflecting pools dividing it at the center. Each of these four sections is further subdivided into four sections and then each into yet another four sections. Like the Taj, the garden elements serve like Arabesque, standing on their own and also constituting the whole.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Visiting Thailand is one of the most magical adventures you could have and while you will be inundated with things to do in Thailand, a stay in Phuket will provide you with a completely different voyage. With flights to Phuket you can incorporate a visit to the island before you head over to the mainland, creating a twin-centre trip to this exotic paradise. Come rain or shine, there’s plenty to do once you’re there, but these are some gems that you really shouldn’t miss.

Visit Phang Nga Bay

An afternoon here will make you realise just how breathtaking the world can be. Take a moment to absorb the beauty of the limestone cliffs that jut out of the waters and take a tour of James Bond Island and Koh Panyee – two of the more popular sights in the bay.

Wander Old Phuket Town

You’ll be surprised at just how much you can find in this sleepy capital. From the funky shops and Chinese architecture to the delicious fare at the local restaurants that will help to keep your energy high, the old town is an absolute must-see.

Spend a day in Chalong

Located in the southern portion of the island, Chalong is home to a whole host of sights to see, including the Wat Chalong temple which is as beautiful as it is inspiring. As the island’s spiritual centre, it’s as popular with the locals as it is with visitors.
Meanwhile, the Big Buddha may be a fairly recent addition to the island, but as it towers over the southern portion, it helps to reflect the importance of spirituality on its island home. As you drive up to visit the monument, you will be able to catch a glimpse of authentic Thailand and once you’re at the top, the panoramic views are incredible.

Relax on Phi-Phi Island

Take a day or two to fully appreciate the beauty and splendour of this Thai hotspot. For many, it’s the reason for a visit to Phuket and its laid-back nature, golden sands, azure waters and beach-fronted jungle add to its allure.

Take plenty of time to appreciate the wonders that Phuket has on offer. From boat trips and diving opportunities to exploring the old town, fill your itinerary with adventure and you will realise why so many people love this area of South East Asia.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Early Edo Gardens

As you travel through Tokyo near the Imperial Palace grounds, you may be mystified by the frequent watercourses and sudden embankments along the train tracks and roads. All across central Tokyo, you come across these reminders of old castle defenses.

The gardens and parks of present day central Tokyo hint of the open spaces that once surrounded the area until Japan started to modernize in the 19th century. Looking at a map, you can get a good impression of what the city must have looked like in the early days.  But today, the only place you can really see what Tokyo was like when it was still called Edo is in the East Garden of the Imperial Palace. It's one of two gardens you should visit if you really want a glimpse of old-time Edo.

Imperial Palace – East Gardens

When Tokugawa Ieyasu decided make the small castle town of Edo (the name for Tokyo before 1868) Japan's center of political power, he started constructing what would be the largest castle in Japan. When it was completed in 1638, it was the tallest building in the country, and its white roof tiles were made to rival Mount Fuji. But shortly after, in 1657, the castle burned down in a fire and was never rebuilt. The foundations are still there, open to the public at the East Gardens.

A wide lawn surrounds the foundations of the central tower, and barracks and gates remain to show visitors what old castle life was like. The area has been turned into a pleasant park with large trees climbing over the winding paths, which were actually part of the castle's system of defense. It's harder for an invading enemy if he does not have a straight line of attack.

Today, this is a favorite spot for Tokyoites who want to enjoy the autumn foliage, and for tourists looking for a window into history. There is no sitting on the lawn and you have to keep dogs on leashes (there are wild waterfowl in the thickets). The Imperial household also maintains the rules, so it is much quieter and more orderly than an ordinary Japanese public park. There are several buildings associated with the Imperial household in the garden area, and also the small but interesting Museum of Imperial Collections.

Hama-Rikyu Gardens

After Tokyo became the capital, the emperor maintained some of the playgrounds of the shoguns. Some of them were hunting grounds – the central Tokyo of today was then at the edge of the old city. The falcon-hunting grounds, where the shogun made day-long expeditions with trained birds in what was then a lush forest surrounded by rice paddies, is now a very ordinary a public park in Nerima (around the Ekoda-no-Mori Hospital). The duck hunting grounds on the waterfront of Tokyo Bay are more interesting. They have became the Hama-Rikyu gardens.

The area became a garden already in 1654, when the younger brother of the fourth of the Tokugawa shoguns (later the fifth shogun himself) used it for a residence. It became a detached villa of the shoguns, and eventually of the Emperor.

Surrounded by a saltwater moat, these gardens today show little that you can associate with duck hunting, except the large pond that serves as the center of the garden. Two duck-hunting sites remain, consisting of narrow watercourses with duck blinds, where hunters could shoot the sitting ducks. Near them, there is a small mound was built to console the spirits of the ducks killed over the centuries.

The duck hunting sites are features of the pond that rises and falls with the tide, the last remaining saltwater pond in central Tokyo. But the garden today is more famous for its 1,000 peonies and the 310-year old pines that surround the waterscape.