A Travellerspoint blog

March 2019

New Dehli & Agra

sunny 38 °C

We weren't sure what to expect from New Dehli. I think we were bracing ourselves for a tough few days but as with Kolkata we were pleasantly surprised. Now don't get me wrong, the traffic here is what you could only describe as 'diabolical' at rush hour and the capital is home to the worst air pollution we've experienced, even worse than Beijing! However, it's much more built up than we expected, we've not seen too much litter and it seems a lot less chaotic than we'd imagine it would be. You don't hear too much horn beeping either. They have a state of the art underground metro and as with London or New York it is packed during busy periods but it works well and is a great way to get around.

We decided to spend three nights in New Dehli and one night in Agra in-between. Agra is a small town three hours away by car or train but home to the Taj Mahal, a superstar attraction if ever there was one. We had hoped to get a train to Agra but it turns out most of these trains get booked up a month in advance due to high demand. We were disappointed as we wanted to experience India's trains and we thought this would be the ideal time to try it but as we had no choice by this stage we hired a driver and a car for two days at a very reasonable price. We were picked up on the Saturday and that day we visited three major sites around the capital before the longer drive to Agra.

The Lotus Flower Temple is a prominent attraction in the city and notable for its flowerlike shape. It reminded us of the Sydney Opera House. It's open to everyone, regardless of their religion, whether they intend to pray or not. Given India's large population, it's not a surprise that it is one of the most visited buildings in the world.



The Humayan Tomb was built in the 16th century for the Mughal Emperor Humayun and was a declared a Unesco World Heritage site in the 1990s.



Akshardham is a Hindu temple and displays Hindu and Indian culture, spirituality and architecture. It only opened in 2005 and we must admit as stunning as it is, it almost borders a little bit on tacky as they tried so hard to recreate another Taj Mahal. Photographs are strictly forbidden but I've added in two below thanks to Google. Despite the OTT nature of the building it's really worthwhile visiting.



We arrived that evening in Agra, the former capital of India before it was moved to Dehli in 1638. There is very little to do in the town itself so we took it easy and had an early night. The following morning it was a 5.30am start in order to get to the Taj Mahal by sunrise. As you'd expect there were a lot of people, plenty of Westerners and many of them were dressed up in full on Indian outfits. We must not have gotten the memo! The Taj Mahal was built in the 16th century at the request of Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor. It's essentially a mausoleum devoted to his beloved third wife! It's one of the seven modern wonders of the world and just as spectacular as you'd hope for in person. It's hard not to be in awe as you explore. It's definitely up there with the pyramids for me in terms of wow factor.





The Agra Fort is located close to the Taj Mahal and we had time for a short visit. Built in the 17th century it's been the residence for for all early Mughal emperors. The emperors had a moat filled with crocodiles as well as a pack of lions roaming the inner walls to keep visitors at bay. Wouldn't have fancied breaking in! It's as grandiose as one expect for an emperor.






I must make a mention of the weather here... the heat has been unmerciful hitting close to 40 degrees after lunch time. It's so important to get your sightseeing done early in the morning or in the late afternoon. Failing that, being in the shade is essential. Another big attraction in Dehli is the Red Fort. However given that it's only open from 9.30am-5.30pm we made a decision to view it from the outside in the evening. There's a light and sound show on at night that would have been great to experience but unfortunately we were told it was closed until 'after the election'. :(



And this concludes our fifteen day tour of India! If you've read previous entries you'll know we've had some challenging times. It's certainly been as interesting and exciting as we had hoped for. And a real sensory overload too. We can conclude it's all been well worth while and we can safely recommend a trip, as long as you know what you're in for! We even managed to avoid the dreaded 'Dehli belly'. Tomorrow it's time to move on to Nepal where Mount Everest Base Camp awaits us.

Posted by mattld 10:56 Archived in India Tagged india dehli asia agra Comments (2)

Jaipur & Rishikesh

sunny 32 °C

We arrived in Jaipur last Friday. After the madness of Varanasi we were looking forward to the next two stops on our route, Jaipur & Rishikesh. Jaipur is the capital of the state known as Rajasthan and like most of India it is chaotic in many places. However the city is colourful and has a Northern Africa feel to it. You wouldn't have to go very far to find camels and we did spot a few elephants. We were thrilled to see that there are traffics lights and in some places pedestrian foot paths! Oh how we missed you both.

Amber Fort was the first attraction on our list, a magnificent and formidable fort. Many regard it as a great example of Rajasthan's architecture. The palace complex is built from pale yellow and pink sandstone and white marble. It reminded me a little of the palace from Indian Jones & The Temple of Doom and we really enjoyed it. You can take an elephant ride but we chose not to.




The following day we visited Gaitor, an ancient tomb belonging to many maharajas (kings).



We also dropped by the Hawa Mahal, an 18th century palace constructed of red and pink sandstone. The City Palace is covered in pink too, they love it in Jaipur!




Jaipur is well known for good food and along with Bagan in Myanmar it's been our favourite stop for food. We particularly loved the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, dining under the stars with excellent yet inexpensive cuisine, nicely themed in an Indian style and with live musicians. We had relatively high expectations of Jaipur based on what we had read and overall we were very happy with the three nights we had here.

On Monday we flew north to Dehradun, a mountainous region and the capital of the state Uttarakhand. From there we took a taxi about one hour south-east to a town called Rishikesh. Rishikesh is located at the foot of the Himalayas and is known as the yoga capital of the world. Just over 100,000 people live here and we were really looking forward to having a few days peace and quiet. Unfortunately however most people are condensed within the same area so we've still been listening to non stop beeping of the horns for the most part!

It turns out the hotel we had initially booked looked nothing like its pictures on Booking.com. We were under the impression it was a new hotel hence there were no reviews (not even a negative one) and lesson learned, we'll never book a place without reviews again! The hotel appeared to be under construction but in reality it hadn't been given any attention in years. We were very skeptical when we arrived and that skepicism quickly converted into an 'absolutely not' when we inspected the room. The staff must have heard this many times and had no issues letting us cancel for free. We quickly booked another online and all was well. We decided to pick a place in the heart of the action. Check out the picture below, it's the view we had from our room, and one of the best room views we've ever had.



Rishikesh is meant to be one of best places you can find for yoga it certainly is hippie central. All the hippie stereotypes you've ever seen were all gathered here together in a town where fish, meat and alcohol are banned and there are an abundance of yoga and meditation classes available on the hour. I've never seen a 'chakra healing' class before and there are many here. In fact we literally missed a very important annual global yoga festival by about two weeks. It's probably for the best. Having said that, we can be pretty quirky ourselves and this was completely different to any other stop we've had. Aside from the yoga and hippies, Rishikesh is one of the most naturally beautiful places in India and also well known for having great white water rafting. And this is what attracted us.

On Tuesday we enjoyed our favourite activity so far, rafting 15km with a group of really fun Indians down the Ganges river. Unlike Varanasi where the river is highly polluted it is very clean in comparison and although cold we enjoyed swimming in it during the rafting session. The water is physically so much closer to its source in the Himalayas and is appears as a beautiful emerald green colour. We could look at it all day.






We both love nature and the next day we booked a day long trek with a local guide. We began at one of the highest points overlooking the entire area and from there we got our first glimpse of the Himalayan mountains.


We spent hours walking and taking in the views. Near the end we were able to take a dip in the local waterfall. It's not as cold as the Ganges but certainly refreshing enough and a perfect escape from the heat on your back.



That evening we took part in our first ever meditation class. You know, to see what the fuss was all about. It would have been rude not to, right? We tried an introductory class. We've no photos to show you but I can tell you our teacher was as quirky as you'd hope for. We focussed mostly on breathing techniques and after an hour we both felt so relaxed, our minds floating away to the sounds of chanting in the distance and ancient bells being rung every so often. Perhaps we shouldn't have been so judgement after all? There's a part of me that would love to spend a week in Tibet with buddhist monks embracing more of my spiritual side. Maybe one day I'll shave my head and buy some robes. There are a number of Hindu statues dedicated to the gods in Rishikesh and we were lucky enough to stumble upon a dancing ritual in the town by one of them.



I'm afraid we only lasted two full days without meat and on the evening of the third we took a tuk tuk 30 minutes outside of the town for some chicken, fish and a few drinks. Bad wannabe temporary vegans! Rishikesh has been the highlight of our entire trip so far. We loved it. Today we head south once more, this time to the country's capital New Dehli. We've got four nights left in India before we depart for Nepal.

Posted by mattld 06:09 Archived in India Tagged india asia jaipur rishikesh Comments (0)

Namaste India! Kolkata & Varanasi

semi-overcast 33 °C

It's time for a little map update... you can see our original route from Sydney up to Yangon.


From there we travelled north to Mandalay, took a bus west to Bagan, flew south to Yangon and then over to Kolkata before arriving in Varnasi. Phew! Thankfully flights haven't been expensive as they're a real time saver given the larger distances we've been covering.


Today is day number six here in India and already we have a lot of feelings and thoughts on this country. India needs little introduction with a population of more than 1.3 billion people. Every person I've ever met has told me its worthwhile visiting despite its challenges. The easiest way for us to enter was to fly into Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

We had no local currency when we landed and having been told the ATM was outside we naturally left the airport terminal to get cash. Unfortunately the ATM machine was not working and the only other one was back inside the airport, upstairs. It seems to the case that in India you cannot enter an airport without a valid flight ticket. One must do their best not to get upset in situations like these! We were able to buy a pre-paid taxi ticket using our card but it turned out the driver had no idea where our accommodation was and was unable to get through on the phone. After an hour in the car it was dark and starting to rain. It turns out our accommodation was up a small alley street that was in the dark. There were a number of people there and after a lot of initial confusion from the locals and frantic hand waving we were brought to what appeared to be a derelict building. Our internal alarm bells started to ring and we were about ask our driver to find us another hotel when a man appeared and told us our apartment was upstairs.

We thought this couldn't be possible... we're staying in a hotel. Aren't we? We were told the power had gone out and the lifts were not working. I'd have to go up to the 8th floor to see for myself if it was legitimate. Just as I was deciding whether or not to trust the man the lights came back on and it didn't seem so bad. I decided to take the lift up with the man and view the apartment. Its advertisement on Booking.com was deceiving but we must admit it was in very good condition. There was a suspicious looking sign on the door but it turns out the swastica is a symbol of divinity and spirituality in India. Don't judge a book by its cover eh.


Kolkata is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and more than 14 million people live here. We only had two nights/days and I'll be honest we set our expectations to very low. However we were pleasantly surprised to find that it's quite a cosmopolitan city and relatively accessible from a Western point of view. There's even a Hard Rock Café and I'm not ashamed to admit we indulged in western comfort food one evening. There's not a lot to do as a tourist but we were able to fill up a couple of days. Mother Teresa is best known for her work with the sick and poor in Kolkata. This is where her tomb resides and we were only a 20 minute walk away. There were very few people there, perhaps a dozen Western tourists and a couple of nuns handing out cards. This didn't come as a surprise given most of the country are Hindu.



There are people everywhere and everything seems familiar but different. Traffic is a nightmare but thankfully they have Uber and after getting an Indian sim card it's been relatively easy to get taxis. You just have to be prepared to spend a lot of time in them.


That afternoon we took a trip out to the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, the number one attraction. It's home to twelve small temples dedicated to Shiva, one of the Hindu gods. I won't lie this was a frustrating visit. It took over an hour to get there (12km), two hours to get back (rush hour) and we must have spent at least an hour and a half in the queue to get through. There we were, the only westerners in the place. We had to remove our shoes and socks which we were used to from Myanmar but at least then the ground was somewhat clean. We were stared at by many who were curious and some would ask for 'selfie selfie'. They don't see foreigners too often so you just have to embrace it. We weren't allowed to take photos inside but I can tell you the statue everyone was waiting to see was tiny and we were only able to glimpse it for seconds in what felt like a mosh pit where you're constantly pushed forward and skipped in the queue. We found this particularly amusing given it's meant to be a religious site.



On Wednesday we arrived in Varanasi. I'm delighted to say we had no flight or arrival dramas! However the Holi festival was due to take place on Thursday and we didn't realise we'd have to lock ourselves in our hotel room for 24 hours for fear of being pelted by dry coloured powder and water guns. This sounded like a lot of fun until we were told we may get something toxic in our eyes or colours in our hair that could take weeks to get out. Women and men have been assaulted and we were warned by our hotel several times not to go outside so we took their advice. Holi is a festival known for 'spring, love and colours' but our interpretation of it is more closely akin to a more playful version of The Hunger Games.


I took the photo below from Google to give you a better idea of what you could expect.


Varanasi is one of the most religious cities in India and many Indians come here to die, spending their last few weeks or months in a hospice as they believe that if they die here they won't be reincarnated. The Ganges river flows through here and you'll see many bathing in it because they believe it has healing properties despite the fact the water is highly polluted. The level of bacteria from human waste in the waters of the river near Varanasi is more than 100 times the Indian government's official limit. That won't stop many bathing in it daily. Down one end there are women washing their clothes in the river and up another end there are bodies being cremated right next to it. It's intense to say the least.



Next to the Ganges river is a large area filled with narrow cobbled stone streets, food stalls and shops. It's a labyrinth and we got lost in there for hours just wondering around and taking in the chaotic sights and sounds. Smells vary from 'bearable' to 'hold your nose at all costs'. Many people regularly spit out saliva or chewing tobacco, there's plenty of urine you can smell and lest we forget the cow dung. Dead bodies are frequently carried through to the Ganges by their relatives and are covered in bright decorations. You can thankfully (?) just see the outline of each corpse. We stuck out like a sore thumb to the locals who are only too happy to try and sell us everything they have but as it's all just so bizarre and interesting it is worthwhile. At one point we were caught running in-between a group of kids with water guns who couldn't wait one more day for Holi and a massive cow (also running) to the sound of Bollywood music being blasted out. Couldn't make it up.





The streets are claustrophobic and even when you're out in the open there are cars, tuk tuks, motor bikes, regular bikes and pedestrians all around you. It really is some kind of organised chaos and it's very unlikely we'll ever see an accident despite the mayhem. Horns are constantly beeping and there's rarely a foot path so you have to have your wits about you at all times.




On our final day in Varanasi we were able to venture back onto the streets again to people watch and see who survived Holi...





We also took a boat ride in the Ganges. It was physically the furthest we had been away from people for almost a week and it felt great. We got adventurous at one point and dipped the tip of our finger into the water but quickly applied hand sanitiser afterwards. You would too. ;)



We're happy to report that we haven't gotten sick yet and we get to hold onto our diarrhoea tablet stash for another day. The food in fact has been great so far and we both agreed that Indian food here is tastier and feels healthier than what you would typically eat in Ireland or Australia, dodgy food stalls excluded. We knew India was going to be difficult. It's like visiting another planet and a real reminder of the downsides of overpopulation. Everyone is in a hurry and many are rude. It's hard not to be suspicious of those that are friendly but we have met a lot of nice people. Twenty percent of the population live below the poverty line... it's hard not to feel incredibly sorry for them and at the same time it's a reminder to be incredibly grateful for what we have. Tonight we fly further west to Jaipur before heading north and off the beaten track to Rishikesh.

Posted by mattld 04:23 Archived in India Tagged india asia kolkata calcutta varnasi Comments (2)

Bagan & Return To Yangon

sunny 38 °C

Bagan is what you could call a temple town and one of Myanmar's main regional attractions. Our six hour bus journey was uncomfortable and the best part was that it actually only took four hours. Thank god. I'm not sure what got lost in translation but it was a welcome relief given the comfort or lack thereof on the bus, not to mention the bumpy roads. Poor Alberto is not a huge fan of the 'food stops' where you should eat whatever surprise is on offer but I've been feeling adventurous since I've been feeling well and enjoying the thrill of lunch for two for less than €4. We have been spending more than that generally though to eat in nicer establishments but you're still talking about dinner and drinks only costing around €12. Can't complain. Early sickness aside, the last ten days in Myanmar have been great.



We arrived to Bagan late afternoon and after the initial shock of being told we were booked into a six bed dorm room for three nights (my fault... soz Alberto) we were able to pay an extra €20 to move to a private room. Phew. When you're booking so many things in terms of flights, accom and transport etc. it's easy to make a mistake. Best to double check those flight details together before you accidentally end up in Outer Mongolia. Here's a photo of the two of us in our new jobs 'working'. I'm writing this blog post while Alberto uploads photos and researches one of our stops in India. I'm not sure who he's talking to on the phone though... The wifi has been painfully slow at times outside of the Capital but we were warned in advance and are remaining calm and patient. Most of the time.


Bagan reminds me of a much quieter version of Siem Reap in Cambodia (which is adjacent to Ankor Wat). Most establishments are clustered together on one dirt road and are well set up for foreign visitors with international cuisine and even a cocktail bar on offer. We hired a Tuk Tuk driver for Thursday. He picked us up at 8am and we spent the morning and early afternoon visiting just some of the best temples, monasteries and historical settlements the region has the offer.






There are more than 2,000 of them! Most were built between the 11th and 13th centuries and a few have been restored (albeit some better than others).





The heat is stifling by lunch time, circa 38 degrees so as much as we enjoyed it by 2pm we had to call it a day and get indoors. The following morning we hired the same Tuk Tuk driver to collect us at 5.30am so we could head to a vantage spot to watch 15 hot air balloons ascend during sunrise. We'd have loved to go on one of ourselves but at US$300 each it was just too much to justify given that we're backpacking vs. being on a holiday. Still though, it was spectacular to watch and possibly my highlight so far.




If you have the budget here's the view you would be able to see from one of the balloons. It's pretty spectacular.


Today we flew back to Yangon for one final night, avoiding a twelve hour bus ride. We spent the day on foot exploring.



We also visited the Sula Paya in the heart of the city, where traffic congestion shares the same space as a 2,000 year old golden temple. They have a ritual here where you can pour water over a buddha and a certain animal depending on the day you were born. It would have been rude not to. Fun fact, Alberto was born on a Monday and I was born on a Wednesday.



Myanmar, it's been wonderful. If you've been to other countries in South East Asia before and you're looking for something a little bit different we'd highly recommend it. Tomorrow morning we take a flight to India via our one way ticket to Kolkata (aka Calcutta). I feel like the whole backpacking part of my life has been building up to this country and I hope we're ready for it...

Posted by mattld 04:43 Archived in Myanmar Tagged bagan yangon myanmar southeastasia Comments (0)

Into Myanmar - Yangon & Mandalay

sunny 34 °C

It was a difficult flight from Sydney. We found two very cheap airfares with Air Asia and thought we had found a bargain. Don't get me wrong, we got there safely but when the air con is on arctic blast and a blanket is not included it makes for an uncomfortable flight! On top of that it looks like I picked up some mild food poisoning on the plane. Today is the first time I'm actually feeling myself and am so thankful to the local doctor who gave me the right antibiotics.

So why visit Myanmar? South East Asia is filled with wonders and well, having both been to Thailand and factoring in my earlier visits to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos it felt more like the neighbouring unknown, which had us curious. It's been less than 10 years since the country was ruled with an iron fist by its military and closed off to the public. The chance to visit before it potentially becomes 'too touristy' was too good to miss.

A few interesting pointers:

  • Hello = Mingalabar (pronounced “Min-ga-la-ba”). The locals genuinely love it when you make an effort with their language.
  • Myanmar was formerly known as Burma and its capital Yangon as Rangoon.
  • A census taken a few years ago tells us there's a population here of more than 55 million! This not only shocked us but was a surprise to the country at the time at 7 million more than expected. 70% of the population live in rural areas.
  • Smoking is not very common here (good on them) but the men love to chew a red tobacco which makes it looks like they've blood in their mouth and their teeth are all cut up. Not the nicest of sights I'll be honest!
  • Technology can be a great leveller... walk into most shops or temples and you'll find teenagers and adults glued to their smart phones. This surprised and if I'm being honest somewhat saddened us. It turns out the developed and developing worlds could use a lesson in life without our precious phones.

Now, being conscious of the time it takes to both read and write these blogs rather than give you a day-by-day account of everything we're doing I'm just going to take you through some of the highlights of each stop. The jewel in Yangon's crown is the Shwedagan Paya. Completed in the 6th century, it is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas.





We also paid a visit a 213 foot long reclining buddha.


On Sunday we took a one hour flight north to Mandalay. The real highlight here was a full day tour around all of its various temples, palaces and treasures. This particular day really made me feel glad I took a bet on Myanmar. Historic sites aside, the real highlight of Myanmar has been its people. They are some of the friendliest you can find and you can tell they're excited to have tourists here.





Many locals are curious about visitors and want a photograph. It would be rude not to exchange one back in return! Despite the language (and their English is not too bad) you can tell they have a good sense of humour.


Today we take a six hour bus journey west to Bagan. We've got four days left in Myanmar, including one night back in Yangon.

Posted by mattld 20:17 Archived in Myanmar Tagged mandalay asia myanmar yagon Comments (2)

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