Wednesday, December 03, 2008

postcard from j: i love mumbai

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I hardly update my blog anymore... But this is IMPORTANT:

Mumbaikars will congregate at the Gateway of India this evening at 6:00 PM for a Peace March in solidarity and remembrance of all the innocent lives lost in the Mumbai terror attacks last week. We also salute the bravehearts of our nation who died while saving us from further tragedy - the Mumbai policemen, army personnel, hotel staff, NSG commandoes, MARCOS, and many others who sacrificed their lives so that we would be alive today.

I urge everyone to pledge their support towards causes that will renew our city and the hopes of millions who call Mumbai their home.

I love Mumbai!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

postcard from j: sex and the city of angels?

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Sky's the limit
Sunday was reserved for Chatuchak but the market wasn't so great. So, we had our breakfast and headed to Nana station to board the BTS or Sky Train. Our destination: Central World Mall - another huge mall.

Taking the train was a nice experience. We climbed up a bridge to the ticket counter where we got change to insert into the slots. A ticket was printed and out it came! At the platform, the train arrived soon enough and there were so many tourists on it. Just three stops to our station - Chit Lom.

I've been very impressed with Bangkok's transport system and also its road sense (see pic). Wish Mumbai could have been this way!

At Central World, the mall looked deserted - well, that's not surprising as there were only big brands there. Prada and the like! Even the discounts were not that enticing. We stopped at the food court and I had a 'moo-yong' - some sort of a pork roll. The Thai sure love their pork a lot. Then we had to try some yummy Haagen Dazs ice-cream - pralines and cream for me :)

Pratunam Centre was close by, so we walked to get there. Didn't see too many electronics, as was told. But I did pick up a trolley bag to take back all my extra stuff that's coming back with me. (And to think I managed to get to Thailand with just one medium-sized travel bag.) Cost just over 400 baht after a little bargaining. Both S & S picked the same bags for themselves too. Decided to go back to the hotel as we couldn't possibly lug those trolleys around. Nothing interesting so far...

Since we were to check out Pat Phong tonight, we got some rest before heading out again. Caught hold of a 'tuk-tuk' (like a rickshaw) in the evening and agreed on a price before sitting in it. The driver said he's taking us to 'Brioni' first, a store run by Indians, as he gets gasoline coupons for bringing in customers - but there was no compulsion to buy anything. I'm amazed at how the city runs. I think Bangkok - and even other parts of Thailand - are only fuelled by tourism.

Anyway, when we got to Pat Phong, the stalls were just opening up. So we strolled around the pavements and looked at the usual stuff being sold everywhere. I picked up these really cute white t-shirts with prints of a chinky-eyed girl doing these karate/kungfu kinda moves. These were for my 11-year-old cousin.

Ga-ga over go-go? Nah!
We even met some rude Thai salesmen in the process ("no Indian, no Indian" just because we quoted a bargain price). We also took a walk around the area and came across some really corny signboards...

It's all there out in the open and that's why Thailand - or atleast Bangkok - scores high on my list of places for women to feel safe. You could wear a really tiny skirt (or none at all) and walk on the streets. No one will trouble you here.

But Pat Phong, it turns out, is also known for its 'night clubs' with go-go dancers. There they were... nubile nymphets inside the seedy clubs strutting their stuff. A man hustled past us and whispered an invitation to a "sexy show" or something like that. I wasn't going to waste money on watching that - LOL!

Finally, we got out of there and headed to a restaurant called "Pasta & Noodles" for dinner. Had some weird dish entirely made of beef or pork but wasn't as bad as the bhindi dinner the other night. Back at the Ambassador, we were ready to crash. The next day promises to be action-packed as we head to Safari World.

Afterthought
Bangkok's the 'city of angels' - or is it? Young people are employed in the tourism sector; some mostly in their teens and then so many take up the sex trade. Look at the "lady boys" - some so pretty that you would have never guessed they aren't women. Young Thai girls being escorted by foreigners back to their hotels is such a common sight. Life can be cruel. It really boils down to the choices we make or for that matter, to the twists of fate. Can't fight destiny, can we?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

postcard from j: a dose of the spiritual

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Breakfast - here we come!

We were scheduled to leave from the hotel at 8:30 am. A note received yesterday said we should be ready by 8. Waking up early in the morning on a holiday can be such a task. Managed to drag ourselves to the AM Cafe on the ground floor of our hotel to have breakfast.

Well, it should be renamed "breakFEAST". Bread, eggs (any way you want: scrambled, double fried, sunny-side-up, boiled), muffins, sausages, beef pastrami (YUMMY!), chicken-somethings, croissants, waffles, French toast, juice/tea/coffee, fruits... and even vegetarian Indian fare like aloo gobi ;)

A round flattish bread called 'naan bread' was amazing to have after filling it up with pastrami and ham. We even tried to sneak out a few muffins so we could eat later (considering we barely had time to have a leisurely breakfast). A nasty-looking stewardess saw us and said we couldn't do that - yes, it was embarrassing but then, with a breakfast fit for royalty and with prices for good meals being quite high in Bangkok, who wouldn't want to take advantage of a full meal that we are paying for?

Anyway, we had to rush because our guide Rook came looking for us. The coach was empty - the other tourists were still having breakfast. So, it was only the three of us with a coach to ourselves.

Temple Time
First, we headed to the Temple of the Golden Buddha (TGB). En route, we crossed China Town with its red-gold lanterns and brocade clothes prominently making an impression. At the TGB, there were scores of tourists from all over the world. We took off our shoes to enter the main section of the temple. A seated Buddha bathed in pure gold was before us.

The mandatory pictures done with and a quick look-see, we moved on. Nothing really caught my fancy except...

I was intrigued by a couple of things: one, a horoscope machine and two, bells hanging from the eaves of the temple with leaf-like metal shapes hanging from them. And they even had something scrawled on them.

I asked Rook about them but his reply didn't make any sense. (Anyone who knows me well can tell you how I love bells and have started to build a small collection of them)















Next, it was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (TRB). An amazing sight was about to unfold. A gold-plated Buddha lay in serenity - so huge that it's impossible to get a picture in one frame. Plus, pillars guarded this supreme being. The soles of his feet were studded with mother-of-pearl designs.
After clicking lots of pictures and walking towards the other hallway of the temple, I saw a long row of bowls on stands. People were dropping coins in them, one in each bowl. Curious (but with no one to explain to me its significance), I picked up a bowl of coins for 20 baht and started to drop coins in the bowls.

As I came out looking for the two ladies, I was excitedly told that I just missed meeting filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor. They had even managed to pose with him for a pic. Well, I did catch a glimpse of him as he entered the temple. Figured he was there as his new movie 'Bombay to Bangkok' was about to hit the silver screen.

Since we were planning to visit the Weekend Market at Chatuchak, Rook offered to transfer us to another coach that was headed that way. But not before the customary visit to the Gems Gallery - lovely jewels really but what a bore!

Chatuchak or Jatujak?
Whatever it may be called, it's the world's largest outdoor market (so I hear). Most of the stalls had pretty much the same stuff - bags, shoes, clothes, Thailand souvenirs, etc.

What really interested me was this stall selling classic posters of yesteryear musicians: Elvis Presley, the Beatles and even of stars like Marilyn Monroe (I don't know why but I am a big fan of stuff with Marilyn images on them). Plus, the owner even sold matchboxes with pop art-like designs on them of Monroe, Che Guevara... Picked a couple of these boxes. And a black-n-white Elvis poster. But wait, I also found these incredible posters of caricatures of EPL players with their respective teams (Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool) - since I work with a sports content company, I thought they would be really nice for the office. For 25 baht apiece, they were a steal.On the whole, Chatuchak didn't really catch our collective fancies as much as we expected. So after walking through the maze of stalls and feeling a little humid, we decided to head to MBK.

MBK again!
This time, the shopping was more focussed. I picked up a whole lot of souvenirs - found a cute ceramic bell with 'Thailand' written on it, plus elephant keychains, a simple pair of chopsticks and the like. As usual, we got tired with all the walking. Went up to the food avenue and were so confused with the system there. You had to buy a credit card sorta thing with a pre-determined value and then pay for the food by having the card swiped at the stall. Now, the whole thing had cuisine from all over the world but nothing looked appetising. We settled for a stall that rustled up a meal of sausages, potato wedges and baked beans. Disappointing!

Found GeoG again for bags. Got myself black formal shoes (yay!) finally. We headed back to Sukhumvit 11 and decided to pamper our feet with a foot massage.

Happy Feet!
The place was called Foot Joy.The masseuse (is that what you call one even it's for feet?) asked me to relax and she immediately got to work. Soaking feet in warm water and a loving scrub later, the actual massage began. Joy to my feet indeed! An hour later, I was ready for sweet dreams. But not so soon... we got a complimentary quick massage for neck, shoulders, head and hands.

After that, we wandered just around the corner to check out the roadside stalls before returning to our hotel. A nice, hot bath later, I was ready to crash. A deep sleep ensued - one that I haven't had in a long, long time. Foot massages are important for happy feet.

Tomorrow is a free day. The plan is to check out local markets, sample local Thai (edible and safe) food and get on to the BTS (Sky Train). Plus, someone had recommended Pat Phong night market. Wonder what's so great about that place!

Friday, January 04, 2008

postcard from j: sawasdee khap, thailand!

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Arrival at the Suvarnabhoomi Airport in Bangkok was a relatively good experience. The airport was really humongous, clean and well-maintained. Even though it was quite early in the morning (around 5 or 6 am), the place was buzzing with activity. Since Thailand lets tourists get their visas on arrival, we went in search of the Visa counter. Visa formalities were a breeze (Thanks Naveen… for insisting on just getting them done in Bangkok). Immigration check done and with my first stamp on my passport, I set foot in another country. Super!

David, where art thou?

We had a bit of confusion with our contact point for the transfer to the hotel. We had made bookings for hotels/transfers/some sightseeing with Thomas Cook. At $250 per head, I say we got a good deal from them. And our airfare roughly worked out to INR 18000 per head through an online booking with Indiatimes Travel. As per the Thomas Cook document, we were to go to a specific point and look for a certain Mr. David. Kept going back and forth and finally saw my name on a board some guy was holding up. He asked us to wait as he was looking for some other passengers.

We spotted a restroom and quickly freshened up. The loos were so clean. I love this place already! David asked us to head towards a coach whose driver’s name was Supraath. The young Thai didn’t know much English, so it was very funny when Sneha tried to get some information
from him about where to shop. Sneha had come armed with the greatest advice for Thailand: Shop at MBK Mall (supposedly a shopping paradise). Supraath somehow managed to convey that MBK was close to the hotel we were to be put up in. He drove us to the Ambassador Hotel on Sukhumvit 11 after a longish drive.

Checking in and "checking out"
First images of Bangkok? Long roads, cars, overhead bridges for the BTS (the Sky Train), hoardings… First impressions? I didn’t really feel that I was in another country. Felt a little disappointed with the non-excitement. Isn’t travel supposed to inspire a little awe and wonder?

When we reached the hotel, we were asked to wait for an hour before we could check in. So, we thought, why not explore the street outside and get some breakfast too. Found a nice café next to the hotel itself – the staff and the prices looked friendly. Asked for Twinings tea and sandwiches. Hmmm, delicious stuff... till we saw the bill :(

We left soon – still baffled at how we got charged so much.


It took us a little while to get used to the time difference. Not that it was a huge difference, but none of us wanted to adjust our watches. We still wanted to be on Bombay time, not Bangkok. So, we had to look at our wrists and calculate what the time was. Silly, I know!

We checked in to our hotel the room was good enough for three of us but it had a pathetic view of the hotel's other section being renovated. After a quick freshening up, we headed to the streets and thought of checking out MBK Mall – the biggest mall here.

MBK!!!

What an experience! Shoes, bags
– any style, any colour, most sizes – greeted us when we entered this monster of a mall. Went giddy with the low prices and shopped away. There was this nice store called 'GeoG' which sold all bags for just 199 baht.* Stopped over at McDonald's for a bite: the (beef) deluxe cheeseburger was a super treat.

Tokyu, a mini-mall by itself inside MBK, was a bit of a bore for me. High prices and itsy-bitsy lingerie are not the reasons I came to BKK for.

Feet started complaining after all the walking. I mean, this was the baap of all malls. Thank God I picked up a pair of slippers – they were quite interesting, one black and one white.


Back home, I wouldn't be caught wearing slippers while shopping. But here in Bangkok, anything goes. Especially when it's about comfort. So the next few days, wearing only slippers while walking up and down the malls. Plus, it just gets easier to try on all those funky shoes on display.

We decided to head back to base and have some dinner, which turned out to be a damp squib. Since it was only our first night here, we decided not to get too adventurous with the food. Found an Indian restaurant called "Moghul Room"
– ordered black daal, bhindi and chapattis. For the money we ended up paying, it was totally not worth it – neither for the quantity nor quality.

Back in Room No. 722 on the 7th floor, we watched some news and soon enough hit the sack. Just before that, we managed to call home and tell everyone that we were alive and kicking. Took us a while to find a phone booth. On enquiring at a convenience store, we were told to buy phone cards to make calls. But we weren't sure we would be using them extensively. And definitely not cards worth 300 baht. This internet cafe had an ISD calling facility, so managed to call and check mail for 15-20 minutes.

Day 1 ended with a lot of money spent in the shopping spree.
Day 2 had a Temples Tour lined up. I'm definitely looking forward to that – Buddhist philosophy has always fascinated me. "Desire is the root cause of all sorrow."

Also, my research on the net had suggested the Chatuchak Weekend Market is a must on your travel itinerary. Sawasdee khap, Thailand...

postcard from j: flight to the finish

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Jan 3, 2008, 10:20 PM (IST) - We're inside the Mumbai International Airport; actually, been here for a while now. Waiting for our call! Finished with the usual formalities: baggage check-in, got our boarding passes. We felt a little hungry all of a sudden, so we found this food counter and picked up a chapatti roll with chicken filling. Plus we had some wafers that Sneha's mum had brought for us.

Airport Watch
What is it that people enjoy the most? People-watching, obviously! At the airport, one encounters all kinds from the human species. Seen the usual firangs - some snoring away blissfully in their sleeping bags, some lugging their backpacks, and then some strolling around in their Oshos. And of course, we have our national treasures - the woman with the fake American accent returning to "New Yaaark", the dressed up Gujju ben dragging her annoyingly noisy trolley bag, the long-haired greying Ashok Amritraj-lookalike, a suspicious-looking Mallu, lots of kiddies in their prams and some throwing a fit while their parents queue up for baggage checks.#

Jan 3, 2008, 11:20 PM (IST) - We are supposed to be seated in the f****** aircraft at this very moment. But we are still waiting for an announcement. It's a bit confusing - my first trip. But hey, half the fun is in the process of getting there, and not just the destination.

Brian - the Amreeki bugger
Oh, before I start off on the plane ride and other assorted stories, I must tell you about Brian, this American backpacker-type, who was also waiting for the Thailand flight with an almost-Zen like calm but a sarcasm that shone through his being. No, his name's not Brian. In fact, I don't know what his name is. Just called him Brian because he looked like a 'Brian'.

Sneha and I were getting impatient waiting for an announcement, and this man breaks into conversation with us and another lady. First, it was about the status of the flight, and slowly it meandered into his travels; how Mumbai Airport is the worst he has seen for a major metro city. Then there was a story of how he took a train from Churchgate to Andheri and then walked to the airport because someone told him that its not very far. "I was told it's 2 kms away from the station, but it felt more like 5 kms." LOL!

Then it was about his connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur from Bangkok. But the best story was the one about him trying to find cheap accommodation in 'Bombay'. Apparently, he was told Kurla is a really cheap option - he ended up in a dormitory set-up which was so filthy that it probably was last cleaned when it was constructed. So he took a bus and headed to Santacruz and on the way, he got off at some "military base" and walked into a "village" with a lot of Catholic families (if you live where I do, you'll see why this is funny). He managed to find a hospitable home and spent the night on this family's floor. The next day being New Year's Day, his hosts took him around like a trophy and made him say that he knows them through another friend. Or he would be bombarded with too many questions. It seems, "Indians ask a lot of questions!" (Aren't we a cute and curious country?). Anyway, the host turned out to be someone called Trevor, and I can bet my money that he was from Big Village in Kalina (one of the old East Indian villages). Brian, of course, didn't know we were from Kalina.

He was shocked to learn that we had planned to go to Pattaya and asked us if we were prostitutes. What cheek! But then, he apologized for asking that. I guess Brian thinks that Pattaya only houses prostitutes. He gave us an all-knowing look and then mumbled about his travels. I asked him why was he travelling since October 2007. He replied that it was a combination of many things: pleasure, "see the world", "experience cultures", "meet people", "soul-searching". Just when I thought an interesting conversation was to unfold, we heard the call for our flight - finally!

So long, Brian! Good luck with your life, but don't call random women prostitutes, buddy!

***

Jan 4, 2008, 12-ish AM (IST) - After a terrible delay and Brian's gyan, we finally boarded from Gate 12 straight into the plane. Turned out to be a Thai Airways flight after all. The air-hostesses did the 'wai' (like a namaste) and ushered us in with "sawasdee khap" (hello in Thai, more like a standard greeting).

We settled down in our seats and I was sandwiched between Sneha and a suit-clad man. Nothing really exciting happened during the flight, except that I downed two vodkas with dinner. Kinda relaxed me a bit, considering I would have liked a more comfortable seat and I barely slept through the four hours.

1881 miles to go -- Thailand, here we come!



# No offence meant to any community!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

postcard from j: thaindians

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After months of research and planning, it's finally D-Day. Three pilgrims are about to leave for the "Land of Smiles". Well, atleast that's what Thailand is called. An 8-day trip, but it needs so much attention. The excitement hasn't really hit me yet.

It's around 4 PM. Some lady from Air India calls. Our flight, which was originally set to take off at 2350 hours, is now going to be 30 minutes earlier. Wow, that's a first! I've just finished packing one bagful of clothes and toiletries, checked essential stuff like passport, tickets, foreign exchange, credit cards, camera, etc. I've only got a few more things to squeeze in. Must remember to carry my black sandals and what else....

Hmmm... yes, this is my first trip outside the country and hopefully, the first of many. The only dampener around this time is the amount of tax getting deducted every month from my salary. I mean, what's the point of working so hard if you just keep shelling out your hard-earned money to fill government coffers? Anyway, I need to do a final check through my luggage. Won't be taking my cell phone along (will miss you, Sony Ericsson) -- can't afford to lose another phone in less than six months.

Sharon and Sneha are the two mad ladies travelling with me. Sneha is already dreaming of Thai massages and sunbathing. Sharon, like me, doesn't feel the excitement just yet. But I guess it's been a tough season at work and otherwise for us! Someone once said, "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." So, here we are... all set to rock another country, and looking forward to all the sights, shopping and the whole "Thai experience".

Will try and write a little every day about our adventure. And there will be lots of pictures too. Heading to Bangkok first and then to Pattaya.

Watch this space for updates!*



* Finally started typing my travel notes here. So, don't be surprised at the back-dated posts!

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