Thailand / Bangkok:
Making full use of the butler service in our double suite at the Sheraton Grand in Bangkok.
Looking back on the three months we spent on the continent of Asia, we realised that there were several people who went the extra mile to make our trip special. While it is impossible to mention all of them here, a few modern day ‘Samaritans’ will remain in our memories for years to come. We wanted to share some of these experiences with our readers as a reminder that the one of the greatest surprises when travelling is the kindness of strangers.
We met Jeonga Lee, a Korean Architect volunteering at the local university, while she was buying a live chicken for dinner at the market in Rajshahi (little did we know that 24 hours later we would be tucking into the very same bird with her!). So rare are foreign visitors in that part of Bangladesh that although she had not used English in years, she generously invited us to dinner at her house the next evening. She patiently bore with our almost non-existent Korean, making a commendable effort to regale us with tales of the challenges of life in Bangladesh e.g. motivating unmotivated university students; tips on making an apartment less attractive to rats and her firm conviction that spending half a month’s salary on having a Western style toilet installed (to replace the two bricks either side of a hole in the concrete floor) was worth every Taka! Eating a homemade Korean meal including kimchi, bap (rice) and kim (seaweed) with her and a colleague was pure heaven!
The Nameless Driver at the Thai-Lao Border
Our first ‘Samaritan’ in Asia was the man at the Thai-Lao border, who was minding his own business when we knocked on the window of his van in the mistaken belief that he operated some sort of taxi service to the capital, Vientiane. After agreeing to take us all the way from the boarder, we were shocked to find that he absolutely refused payment for the lift. It was only at this point that we realised that this ordinary man had simply taken pity on two foreigners arriving in Laos late at night in the rain.
Deborah of Kayia House in Varkala, India
After a day on buses from central Sri Lanka to the capital and a night spent at Colombo airport, we flew to Trivandrum in India and took a train for 2.5 hours, followed by two rickshaws… and we still hadn’t found what we were looking for in Varkarla! Frustrated and on the verge of losing it with each other, we passed a building on the main road advertising rooms. When we enquired whether there were any vacant, Deborah the American co-owner told us that she was full. One look at our faces (and perhaps a whiff of our unwashed bodies), was enough to convince her to give up her own room for us. Thus began a wonderful 48 hour stay in the ‘African Room’ at Kayia House. Homemade Indian breakfasts, a free personal tour of the town conducted by Deborah herself, use of the library and lounge, Internet access a non-stop supply of tea and coffee and free filtered water made it very difficult to leave this home away from home.
The People of Bangladesh
Throughout our two weeks in Bangladesh we were helped by a changing cast of passers-by, shop keepers, rickshaw drivers, bus and train passengers. From Ahmed the jovial Immigration Officer at the airport who taught us our first words in Bengali, to the NGO worker who played interpreter during negotiations with a rickshaw driver in Pirojpur, we experienced nothing but the most genuine of welcomes everywhere we went. Time and time, again bearded Muslim men who fit the dangerous stereotype of ‘Fundamentalists’ so senselessly promoted in Western culture, came up to us to shake our hands and welcome us proudly to their country. It was with a sense of shame that we realised that men and women dressed in shalwar kameez, hijabs, abayas and niqabs would not receive the same open hearted welcome in many parts of Europe.
Our journey through India began with one of the most famous women in India, so it seemed only fitting that we finished our six weeks in the country by visiting the abode of the most famous Indian man, Mahatma Ghandi.
A trip to Mani Bhavan near Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai made for a fascinating review of the milestones of Ghandi’s life. Anyone who has ever seen the Oscar winning biographical film about the Mahatma’s life (literally Great Soul in Sanskrit), or read Ghandi’s autobiography will be at least vaguely familiar with many of the events which shaped him as a young man. The museum which has been established at Mani Bhavan, Ghandi’s residence when he was in Bombay, does not simply rehash the facts; here you can see the room where he slept and some of his modest personal belongings, look through photos and read quotations which succinctly explain the philosophy of Satyagraha, which Gandhi is famous for.
Gandhi is an international inspiration with disciples such as Martin Luther King Jr, Einstein, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. His personal experience of discrimination in Apartheid South Africa is well known, as are the civil protests which he lead that morphed into a catalyst for change, eventually signalling the death knell for the British Empire. However, the most interesting exhibit at Mani Bhavan was Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler.
Addressing Hitler as “My Friend”, the letter is written in the humblest of tones; Gandhi urges the Führer to retreat from the brink of war, but the strangest thing about this letter is the way it contrasts with popular thinking about Hitler in India today. Walking around Mumbai, we were able to find numerous booksellers stacking copies on Mein Kampf for sale. I interviewed one man who told me that it was a bestseller in India. When asked why the book was so popular, he explained that “Hitler was a Mastermind”, but was unable to expand on this claim.
His views are echoed by Jaico, the publishers, who are racing to produce at least two reprints per year to satisfy demand from young Indians who claim that it is a ‘management guide’. As Sohin Lakani, owner of the Mumbai- based Embassy books put it in a Telegraph interview “Students are increasingly coming in asking for it and we are happy to sell it to them…They see it as kind of a success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan and how to implement it and then successfully complete it”.
The same article quotes an Indian reader, Ram Kumar: “In our country we need more pride and self-confidence. Hitler developed his country in a very short time through industrialization. Yes, he definitely had some bad qualities, but we can learn from his management style and leadership skills.”
Naturally, such admiration of an historical character, viewed as a monster by many in the West, is disturbing. Especially worrying is the lack of historical context in which the book is being distributed and that some young Indians mistakenly view the letters to Hitler as a sign that there was a relationship between Gandhi and Hitler. To add to the confusion, according to some academics, the Nazis borrowed the Sawstika, a Hindu motif and ideas about Aryan supremacy.
It is ironic that Gandhi wrote to Hitler some months before the beginning of WWII and pleaded him to abandon his warmongering and that President Obama described Gandhi as “The father of your nation” when he addressed the Indian parliament during his visit last November. However, some like Ram Kumar seem to be taking inspiration from a man who is the very antithesis of everything Gandhi stood for.
We had only heard vague mentions of Hampi from other travellers; although our guidebook ranked it as one of the must-sees in India, nothing we had heard could have prepared us for this magnificent World Heritage Site.
As we approached Hampi Bazaar in a rickshaw from Hospet station, we were greeted by the majestic gopuram of Virupaksha temple towering above the palm trees like an ancient Mayan pyramid. Though it was built in 1442, the carvings are incredibly well preserved, but less risqué than those at other sites in the area (parental guidance advised!). If you want to enter the temple, which is still in daily use, the locals welcome you to do so – if you are lucky, you may even get to see the resident elephant, Lakshmi in the morning.
We spent many hours getting lost among the ruins, which date from 1336, in the most unexpected places: nestled between giant boulders scattered along the Tungabhadra River and hidden in the banana plantations which surround Hampi.
The ruins are incredibly quiet today, but by the 16th century the settlement had morphed into an urban centre supporting some 500,000 people (more than the contemporary population of London).
Although we felt safe exploring the ruins in a pair, if you do get lost or twist an ankle, it is so eerily deserted that there really is nobody around to help you. The terrain is also quite difficult to navigate, so a decent map, sunscreen and plenty of water are essential.
Even without the ancient architectural gems which are dotted around the surrounding countryside, the boulders, lush palm trees and paddies would be awe inspiring, but the obelisks, palaces and temples which have been superimposed on the landscape make it utterly breathtaking.
One of our favourite sites was the splendid Vittala Temple which sits in an isolated spot near the river. It is incredibly well preserved and contains beautiful examples of Vijayangar sculptures and an exquisitely carved stone chariot which sits in its courtyard, that even has stone wheels which could turn.
Unlike Angkor Wat, the whole complex remains largely untouched; there was not another tourist in sight, giving us the feeling that we were the first people to have ‘discovered’ Hampi. It was hard to believe that we were free to wander the sites alone and that almost all of them are accessible without an entrance ticket!
Thankfully, Hampi is not yet visited by hoards of tourists; no artificial walkways have been built to protect the stone steps and most of the ruins are unguarded, however as the volume of visitors increases, as it undoubtedly will, it remains to be seen whether the site will be able to retain its charm.
The ferry from Alappuzha to Kottayam is a great way to slow down the pace and get a glimpse of daily life in Kerala. You can either travel on a houseboat for a couple of days (4500-7000 Rs), or you can take the ferry like the locals do, and cruise through one of the most tranquil parts of India.
The journey takes you through tiny villages on the edge of the marshy backwaters, giving you the chance to glimpse rural life in India at its best. Houseboat cruises, designed like kettuvallams (rice barges), are big business in the state of Kerala; in recent years they have even been upgraded to match the demand for air-con, onboard chefs and romantic getaways. Though renting a houseboat is one of the most expensive experiences in India, local ferries make it possible to get the same views (though not the ambience) without forking out hundreds of Euros.
Kottayam bound services leave regularly, and at just 10 Rs for the 2.5 hour journey, cost a fraction of a trip on a tourist houseboat. Ferries travel slowly and you are likely to be one of the few foreigners onboard, which allows you the chance to rub shoulders with Indian passengers rather than simply observing the backwaters through the lens of your camera.
Here you can escape to a place far removed from the hectic roads of India. This water world is a far cry from the car horns and pollution of the big cities. Men fish, talk on their mobiles as they walk along the canals and women wash clothes and plates in the water as children splash about. With elections looming, villages are decorated with hammers sickles; cheesy posters promote plump candidates sporting sparking smiles. It is ironic to think that in the world’s largest democracy, communist flags can be seen fluttering in the wind from Kolkata to Kovalam, but in China, the world’s largest Communist nation, the hammer and sickle are gradually be retiring from public life.
From Kottayam it is a rickshaw or bus ride to the fascinating Fort Kochin, where you can maintain the slow pace for a few days while soaking up the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, Arab and Jewish influences on this small island facing the Arabian Sea.
Kochin was so difficult to leave that as we were having breakfast on the morning of our planned departure, we decided that we were not ready to leave behind the orthodox churches, 400 year old synagogue, Chinese fishing nets and crumbling colonial buildings, so we checked into our hotel for an extra night!
Rajasthan has become one of the most popular states to visit in India, known for its bright colours and fiery food, the ‘Land of Kings’ brims with forts, palaces and spectacular remnants of the past.
Jaipur, perhaps the most famous town in Rajasthan, is the gateway into the state. The Old City, also known as the ‘Pink City’, gives visitors a first glimpse of bygone glory, but be prepared: its treasures lie at the centre of the traffic choked sprawl of an expanding greater Jaipur, which is arrestingly ugly in parts.
The lack of traffic police and traffic lights makes for stressful road crossing (to the delight of rickshaw drivers), while the sheer amount of faeces on the streets makes walking an obstacle course (flip-flops are not recommended!), but persevere and you will be rewarded by the delights of the Hawa Mahal (City Palace). Here you can take a fascinating peek into the lives of the maharajas, tour the armoury and see their well preserved collection of royal clothing.
Afterwards hours can be whiled away drinking lassi from clay cups with the locals at the ‘Lassiwala’ or haggling for textiles and jewellery in the bazaars.
While Jaipur was interesting for a day or two, we were looking for a place where we could slow down the pace a bit. Our next stop, Jaisalmer, was exactly the right choice.
Built in 1156, Jaisalmer Fort, is situated a 12 hour train ride from Jaipur in the Rajasthani desert. As the train approached the town, we got our first glimpse of the ‘giant sandcastle’; rising, seemingly out of nowhere, the construction of the ninety-nine imposing bastions made us wonder how this citadel could have been constructed in such a harsh environment more than 850 years ago.
Sadly the imposing exterior bastions, which tower above the new town that has sprouted beyond them, are a façade which hide an imperilled interior – the fortress is still inhabited, but it is uncertain how long it will remain a viable residential zone as poor drainage and overcrowding are causing alarming subsidence (since 1993 three of the bastions have collapsed).
Numerous hotels inside the fort vie for tourist dollars, but foreign visitors use much more water than the average local, increasing the strain on the drainage system. Another issue is the dumping of waste created by tourists and locals (particularly pet bottles and other plastic) within the walls. With these problems in mind, we chose to sleep outside the fortress walls.
On a positive note, Jaisalmer is a great place to explore on foot, though the harsh sunlight of the desert makes it sensible to adopt the languid pace of the locals. Wandering the alleys of the fort, shopping for embroidery, leisurely lunches, followed by siestas, and the wonderful delights of the Kanchan Shree Ice Cream shop (the makhania lassis are highly recommended!) filled our days. In Jaisalmer we could put away the guidebook and let the streets take us wherever they led.
For us this diminutive town a long way from anywhere was one of the highlights of northern India and we hope that the efforts to preserve it will be successful because it would really be a great loss if it were to turn crumble and return to the dust.