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Take the Night Train

8 Days in Bangkok

semi-overcast 95 °F

Another long day of travel began in Ko Tao were we waited all morning at the AC2 restaurant for the time to head to the pier to catch the ferry. The ferry was much more pleasant than the night ferry. Calm sea, and almost empty boat to spread out in, and a much shorter ride to the main land at three hours. We arrived in the fishing village of Chumpun at about 6:00 in the afternoon and had to wait at the pier for about 45 minutes for the bus to the train station. We had a good wait until our 11:30 train came so we sat down on a bench and played cribbage. While playing we took in the scene at the station. A large group of people prepared food and when a train was arriving they loaded up a bunch of trays with soups and baskets full drinks or snacks and hop on the train. It looked like quite a few rode the rail out one station and then came back on the next train. As we played the call of these hawkers and the cry of the passing trains set the score to what would be a long wait as the 11:30 train did not show up until 1:40. The rhythm of the rails put me almost instantly into a hypnotic sleep were the passing stations were all but a far off dream. Meghan woke me up at about 8:00 to a bright morning and bright green rice paddies in the passing countryside. The bunks folded up smartly to two comfortable chairs facing each other with plenty of room to stretch out. As we approached Bangkok the rice patties gave way to increasingly dilapidated and polluted trackside hovels. The filth that we saw people living in was more shocking here than anywhere we had been yet. Polluted canals lined the tracks and people had built up shacks on stilts. Having the means to afford a 1 year trip however meager it might be must be unimaginable to these people and I was confronted by feelings of guilt in the presents of such poverty.
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Not our Train
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Meghan enjoys the morning on the train

We pulled into the countries largest train station. and easily made our way on foot through the busy streets of Bangkok to the River View Guest House. The walk was interesting and a look into Bangkok’s crazy roads. We had to make our way through a maze of narrow alleyways too small for a car but still supporting thriving commerce, each one more narrow than the next and haphazardly strewn together. Just when we thought it was not possible to find our way we started seeing signs for the guest house and made our way in. The main entrance to the River View Guesthouse is on a lane about 4 feet wide deep in the heart of Bangkok. Not in the downtown area, not in the busy travel center that is Ko San Road, not in the shopping district, but in a village within the city. Something Bangkok is famous for. Here in a city of 9 million we are in a quiet nook were kids play in the street, dogs wander freely, there is a common coin operated washer and dryer in a courtyard, and everyone seems to come together.

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Hua lamphong Station
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Finding our way into the River View Guesthouse
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Buried in a mountain of spare parts

Our first afternoon in Bangkok we decided to treat ourselves to a bit of an escape from the world tour, the heat, and the blustering madness of Bangkok. Something we had been wanting to do for quite some time. We went to see Avitar in Imax 3-D! First we needed to figure out how to get from point A to point B in the imitating cluster of Bangkok. We made our way back out the alleyways we came in on and out to a pier on the river Mae Nam Chao Phraya which serves as a major artery to all the maddens and an efficient mode of transportation. You need to be on your toes though! We let the first boat pass us by in a split second of indecision, no second chances for the ferry, we had to wait for the next one. We kind of laughed at ourselves and figured the locals probably loved leaving wide eyed farang on the pier. From the boat it was onto the sky train to the mega shopping mall district were we rose to the top floor and to the Imax. Movie going is a big deal in Asia and other than Imax there are many different classes of movie theatres from the basic theatre which is about the best of the best back home to full blown luxury were you are catered two hand and foot. Literally… they will give you socks if your feet get cold in the arctic AC. Avitar in IMAX 3-D was amazing and I felt completely immersed in it. When it was over I almost thought we were walking outside to the cold Colorado winter!
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All bug eyed in the Imax Theater

The next day our mission was to get our visas for India. This took us out back were we saw the movie the night before and to the official visa service to the embassy of India. It was actually a really easy process and we were in and out within ½ hour. We had got up early expecting to have a long wait and a horde of people and it was quiet, quick, and easy. Unfortunately this was only the application and we would have to wait in Bangkok a week for the actually visa to come back from the embassy. From here it was on to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Consecrated in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule, this large complex of ornate buildings crates an almost fantasy world of gilded temples and spires. The center piece of the whole compound is the Emerald Buddha. This is just a small jade Buddha, but it has a rich history and is set atop a massive golden alter. IMG_4047.jpg
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Grand Palace
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We were really tired after this but still decided to walk a busy market lane that cuts through almost the entire length of china town en route to the River View Hotel. Before we even got their we came across a huge fresh flower market and strolled amongst more cut flowers than I have ever seen in one place. It was fantastic. From here we picked up Sampeng Lane. This was a long narrow ally way that was overstuffed with shops spilling out into stalls and vendors. Add a ton of people and the odd scooter or handcart trying to push threw it all and their you have it! As with almost everything for sale on the street in Bangkok it was rife with pirated, imitated, and counterfeit goods for pennies on the authentic price. It was fun to see and turned out to be a real entertaining walk and we returned to the guesthouse completely spent.

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Orchids
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Pushing Corn on Sampeng Lane
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Sampeng Lane
It is now Saturday in Bangkok and time for Weekend Market Madness! We got up early and headed out to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. This is one of the worlds largest open air markets and truly did impress. Somehow we wound up spending 7 hours here browsing the endless shops and stalls picking up new clothing for ourselves along the way. It was incredible how large it was and that it only operated on the weekends.

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Thai Silk - Chatuchak Market
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Vintage Sneakers - Chatuchak Market
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Baby Pig’s? - Chatuchak Market
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All the Cheep Clothing you need - Chatuchak Market
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“Stretching” The Thai Tea - Chatuchak Market

The rest of our time in Bangkok was spent relaxing and taking in a few more sights. Wat Pho which was home to the enormous reclining Buddha and a more less ornate temple compound than Wat Phra Kaew. We saw a few less tourists here and more monks and school children running around. We took in a bizarre Museum of Forensic science with stomach churning displays, visited the American entrepreneur Jim Thompson’s house, and visited the backpackers Mecca of Khao San Road.

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Yaksha or Mythical Giant guarding the gate at Wat Pho
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Reclining Buddha - Wat Pho
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Wat Pho
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Wat Pho
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Smiling Buddha - Wat Pho
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Many More Buddha’s at Wat Pho

We also made the big decision to leave Thailand for India without going to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. We did this mostly for the weather. We figured waiting to go to India would be a mistake and the heat and rain would push us out before we wanted to leave. We may come back after we volunteer in Nepal during April if we feel the need to. So, after collecting our visas from the embassy and 8 days in Bangkok we are going to head out for a quick tour of Northern Thailand before returning to Bangkok to fly out to Calcutta on the 14th. India here we come!!!

More Bangkok Images
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Market Grains
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Great your Street Meat
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China Town Fish Heads
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China Town
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Scrutinizing Amulets in China Town
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Monks waiting for a boat
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River Scene
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River View Guesthouse, View from River
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Live on the Canal just minutes from Downtown Bangkok
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American Entrepreneurs Jim Thompson’s House
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Thai Flags over flower laden tuk tuk

Posted by pmunson 20:07 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Trekking, Tribes and Temples

A short sprint through Northwestern Thailand


View rtw on pmunson's travel map.

We blazed out of Bangkok on another overnight train to Chiang Mai. This time we had better timing and boarded about 7:30 with just enough time to get settled and read for a while before turning in. In the morning we were only up for an hour or so before we pulled into the station. I graciously accepted the first guest house tout who approached us with a free ride into town and an affordable bed. The Chiang Mai Thai Guesthouse was more than acceptable with free internet, a large and comfortable room, a nice in house restaurant, and a large swimming pool. We checked in, I got a proper breakfast as the one on the train was lousy, and we set out to explore the city. For some reason I started to slowly settle into a cloud of depression as the day wore on and by the next morning I was full on in a bad mood and questioning everything about our travels. Why I let this take control is beyond me but it basically ruined my entire time in Chiang Mai. Meghan got out to see some interesting Wats and found a new favorite dish called Khao Soi. Found in only in Northern Thailand, Khao Soi is a noodle curry soup that I guess was more Burmese then Thai. It was delicious!! I started to come around on the second night and we went out for a walk into old town and checked out the night market, music and celebrations going on for the annual Flower Festival. Meghan suggested us a foot massage operation going on in the same area were the music was being performed so we sat down and enjoyed a massage and some live music simultaneously! The next day we checked out some of the parade that went along with the Flower Festival just before heading out to Soppong and the Cave Lodge.
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Khao Soi The Restaurant Version - Looks nice but not as good as its less expensive version on the street
Flower Festival
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Flower Festival
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Apparently the loop we would be traveling over the next few days has 1846 hairpin curves and if you complete tour by motor bike there is a the t-shirt to prove it! The first leg to Soppong was a worthy introduction. Soppong was not more than a small market town and a bus stop were we would continue on by motorcycle 9 km to the north to the small village of Tham Lot and the Cave lodge. Set on a pleasant stream and in an area that contains the highest concentration of caves systems including one of the worlds largest caves. The Cave Lodge has been operating for 30 years and John Spies, the owner, who can still be found taking your breakfast order and leading the occasional day trip, has explored most of the caves in the area. John came to Thailand at the age of 22 and fell in love with both the land a certain trekking guide. With her, they explored all over northern Thailand on foot. They built this guesthouse and brought tourism deep into northwestern Thailand. This was a wonderful place were the guests went out on walks together during the day and sat around the communal area and campfire talking in the evening.

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Our Cozy Cabana above the swimming hole at Cave lodge
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Old rice farmers shack over dry rice fields
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Dusty Water Buffalo

We met a few really nice folks here and heard a lot of great stories. We hooked up with 5 other long haul travelers like ourselves and went out for a long walk. Our guide, Pat was Northern Thai, lived in Tham lot and also worked in the kitchen when not leading guests. We explored a really nice cave that you had to get down on your belly to crawl into but once you were in could stand up and walk around in. We went in about 150 to 200 meters which seemed far but was short in comparison to the 8.5 km Tham Nam Lang Cave in the same area.

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Cave Entrance
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Flowstone formation
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Underground and out of focus

We attempted to enter another cave, but the rains from the previous year had plugged the entrance with a large tree. We instead walked up to a spiritual cave where we encountered a monk who had been there for three days practicing his meditation. He was very friendly and eager to speak with us. When asked if I could take a picture, he posed for me. On the return with walked through on of the Kayan Villages in the area. The women came running out with bundles of woven goods for us to peruse. The hike ended 7 hours later after a 2 hour final stretch including something like 45 river crossings. We got back with wet boots and tired legs and were all excited for the pizza that was being made for us from scratch that day and would be cooked in their clay ovens upon our arrival.

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Cave Monk
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Kyan Women Meghan bought a shawl from
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Crossing the river towards the end of the day
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Tham Lot Hillside

The Cave lodge was one of our favorite places in Thailand and the wood fire water heater provided the hottest shower I had had since being back home. It was a real treat and we would have liked to stay longer but our Thailand clock is ticking so we decided to head out to Mae Hong Son. Over breakfast the next day we found another couple who was also leaving had a rental car and were also heading to Mae Hong Song so we got our first free ride of the trip.
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Bamboo Rafts waiting to take visitors through the cave by boat.
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Exit of the Tham Lot cave were 10’s of thousands of swifts fly in at dusk (They did not photograph well so all you get it the cave)
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Cave Lodge wood burning water heater

Mae Hong Song was even more remote and accessible only by the incredibly windy roads I have already described or a sketchy flight. The town had an authentic feel to it and tourism only appeared to have a soft touch upon it. We found a nice place to stay on a lake overlooking the main Wat were novice monks routinely practiced their chants and meditations day and night. We enjoyed getting an upfront view of all this and silently watching and listening to “Monk School“. The Wats in this part of the country had a huge Burmese influence and where quite different in architecture and decoration.
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Learning to become a better monk
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Meghan set off a floating lantern for good luck
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Mae Hong Son What by night
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By Day

The next day we rented a motorcycle and took a long winding drive up to the Burmese border. On the way we stopped a cave were gigantic brook carp congregate and are considered holy and protected by a Hindu statue! We saw an unimpressive waterfall due to the dry season and low river and a summer palace for the king before arriving at the Burma border and a small Chinese village. We enjoyed a lakeside meal with a charismatic shop owner. We were the only ones there and he wanted to know all about us and he told us his life story. From a few English words and not very many Thai words we got that we was Burmese and lived in Thailand for 46 years, patrolled the border for the Thai army and owned 10 water buffalo, this he had pictures to show us! From here it would be an early bus to Mae Sarieng.
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large_IMG_4473.jpgMae Hong Son Countryside
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Rice Farmers
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Border Village
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Scooter Shot in Chinese village
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Working the turns

Set along the Mae Nam Yuam river the old part of Mae Sariang, were all the guesthouses were located, was very quiet. We actually had trouble finding anyone at the Salawin Guest house were we intended to stay but eventually did. After looking around town briefly we decided to look into another day of guided trekking. We had a few different options and decided on a boat trip along the Mae Nam Moei river which creates the natural border between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). We started out early and drove out of town in the back of a pickup truck on a cold and misty morning. We crossed green rice fields and farmland before hitting the hills and climbing steadily up windy and bumpy roads to the border. As I started to think my butt and back could take no more we started to pass through small villages with bamboo huts with leaf roofs before descending back down to the river.
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More Rice Please!
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This ones for you Robin!
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Misty Morning
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Mae Nam Moei river boats

Here we joined a novice monk and two village women in their native dress on a long river boat heading down river. It is the end of the dry season so the river was really low and we had to hike a ways through scorching hot sand and no shade before entering the forest. We immediately passed through one village were their were a good amount of villagers out and about. Mostly kids and women as most people were working the fields but we did get to see one woman making a broom out of a piece of bamboo. I asked to take her picture and she shied away. I immediately felt really weird for asking and was really uncomfortable. We moved on through the forest were we saw hillsides that had been cleared by hand in preparation for growing rice. We also crossed paths with a local man who was carrying a really old looking rifle. Our guide shared that this is what they use to hunt with. The second village was much smaller and appeared to be very much unaffected by the modern world. We stopped at one of the 8 homes in the village were a lunch of noodles was prepared for us over a families’ fire. The home was a typical Thai home, elevated bamboo house with bamboo floors and a leaf roof. Eight people lived in the home, all but one woman and two small children were out working the land. Their was one small separate bedroom but other than that everyone slept on the floor together. There was a kitchen in the middle of one wall that consisted of an open fire and some hanging pots. One luxury that they did have was a running water tap that was gravity fed from a stream at higher elevation. We learned that the government had provided that for them in addition to a solar panel but we did not see any lights or other signs of electricity in the village. It did feel all a little bit weird when we were there but looking back it was really amazing to sit and have a meal and a small view on how these people can still live off the land and be so removed from the modern world in this day and age. We continued on our hike through dry rice fields and then alongside a small creek back out to the river were we got back on the boat and headed back to the pickup truck for the bumpy ride back to Mae Sariang. Back in town we only had a few hours before jumping on an overnight bus bound for Bangkok. The cheep local way of going turned out to be twelve hours overnight on a bus to Bangkok followed by another bus ride backtracking past were we had come from to our next destination Ayuthaya.

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Floating hut
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Leaf Roof Constuction
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Hut
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Rice drying in the sun
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Kitchen
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Hut

Ayuthaya used to be the capital of Siam before Thailand and Bangkok. For 417 years from 1350 to 1767 this was said to be one of the finest cities ever seen by many travelers. This all came to an end in 1767 when an invading Burmese army sacked the city and looted most of its treasures. For us it was a grassy old fort surrounded by a river moat on 4 sides and packed with interesting ruins in differing states of collapse. The most interesting was the fact that the city was built around the ruins in an no-evasive way that aloud you to enjoy restaurants and cafes alongside the ruins. We did the popular thing and rented a bike to peddle around the ruins and had a sweaty afternoon on a hot and humid day exploring the old city. When the Burmese raided the city they decapitated hundreds of Buddha Statues and left eerie ruins filled with headless statues. One of these decapitated heads found its way alongside a growing tree and today is trapped behind a tangle of roots. We decided to head outside the old city and its surrounding moats to visit one last temple at sunset. It was not all that far but still seemed like a good ride. The temple was one of out favorites and we pretty much had the place to ourselves after a tour bus left. We made the long ride home and got back just after dark right as the place we rented the bikes from was shutting down.

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Caption this
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Fan, Umbrella, Ice cold bag of Coke… What more could a girl want.
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Cambodian Monks on Holliday
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Still maintaining peak cycling physique. Anyone for the Leadville 100?
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Take me to your leader
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Headless Buddha’s
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The next day we went out to a “floating Market”. This was a totally fabricated scene were you had to pay an entrance fee and bought coupons to buy tickets. At first I was disappointed thinking it was just another tourist trap but after a while I realized all the tourists their were Thai. This place was not in the guide book, we picked up on it from a recommendation, and it actually was really cool. Their was a cultural show that was lighthearted and it appeared that the actors were having fun. It was a look at what Thai people do on a domestic vacation.

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We headed straight back to the hotel and took an afternoon of AC to get ready for India and what lied ahead. I was nervous about going to India without a plan but other than that I was not all that nervous about India itself. Meghan on the other hand was OK with the fact that we had no plan but was just nervous about India in general. I guess we will see how we do what when we get there and I am sure things will work out well. So now it is goodbye to Thailand and South East Asia and Hello India. We have had a lot of fun in Thailand. Hindsight, we realized we stayed a bit too long in the south and in Bangkok and did not spend enough time in the north. I think if we were to come back again during or after this trip we would stick to northern Thailand and complete our plan to visit Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Posted by pmunson 03:18 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Arriving in India


View rtw on pmunson's travel map.

Our first day in India. It all started in Ayutthaya, Thailand at 6:30 in the morning. We got up, got packed, and caught a minivan back to Bangkok. From here it was into another minivan to the airport. We waited about ½ hour while the van driver crammed in 14 passengers and we set out. The airport was easy enough and before to long we were on our way off to Kolkata! The first odd thing we noticed was that almost every person of Indian decent was checking in with at least one flat screen TV. Perhaps Bangkok is a popular spot for Indians to go TV shopping. We sat on the sweltering tarmac for 30-45 minutes with a bunch of grumpy and fussy passengers and no AC before taking flight and cooling off at higher elevation. When we landed the first order of business was to go through a mandatory check for H1N1 flu. The process was to step in front of a heat sensing camera and if you were “cool” enough you were good to go. Unfortunately both Meghan and I were flagged for being too “hot” and we were sent to a holding area. Not a good start. We were sent to a holding area and started to get a little nervous. Meghan’s Uncle Dave has a lovely story about being quarantined for H1N1 in Chile when he was perfectly healthy and this was all I could think about as we sat unattended in the airport. I figured that I needed to do something before we waited here all night. There were about 5 others in the pen with us and nobody was saying anything to each other. I knew that we were just warm from just walking across the tarmac and being a little nervous about India. There were monitors were we could see what the “health screeners” were looking at and what they were basing their decisions on. I noticed that the people that were getting flagged for further examination were the people who had white spots on the heat sensing camera. When I went through I noticed that the white hot spot was just were my hat was touching my forehead. I grabbed someone who looked official and tried to explain this to them. He seemed to understand what I was saying and told me to go wash my face. It took a second to sink in but then it was plain as day. Splash some water on my face to cool down and go through the screening again. I did this, got Meghan to do the same, and we pushed our way back into the line and had our picture checked a 2nd time. What do you know! Instead of red and white I was nice and orangey yellow! We both were cleared and on our way to customs. Munslers 1, India 0! We had successfully fooled the failsafe immigration health check. We arranged for a pre-paid taxi inside the Airport to avoid the restless touts outside the gates and were whisked away buy a over friendly and chatty cabbie. Outside of the flowing conversation we caught some interesting sights on the 22km ride to our hotel. We saw a cow on the sidewalk in the middle of the city outside a jewelry shop, apparently it was just browsing. We saw an outdoor public urinal (we knew people pissed on the streets in India but we did not think urinals were provided). Families were bathing and doing laundry out of buckets in the sidewalks and when cutting through an ally way we saw people “playing doctor” as the cabbie put it. What he meant was shooting drugs and it was right in our faces in the light of day as we drove by. This was only a few minutes before we got dropped off and were a little wide eyed, paranoid, and on our guard as we shouldered our packs on a crowded street and set out to find a hotel. We passed up an overpriced and grungy spot and got turned away at a full house before settling on a clean little room three flights up a dirty staircase. We were hungry and it was Valentines day so we set out to find a nice place to eat some authentic Indian food. After passing up an offer for hashish on the street we navigated our way without a map to a Northern Indian restaurant a few blocks away. We were greeted at the door by a two men, one being a midget, who were formally dressed in matching outfits. They pointed us upstairs and we walked into a beautiful dining room covered in murals, tiered ceilings, and chandeliers. A team of about 10 waiters, all in uniform attended to us in the fashion of a five star restaurant. This was a Vegetarian restaurant and we had no idea what to order so we asked the waiter to pick out a course of three dishes, which turned out to be 5, and we had one amazing dinner. We started out with some sort of cottage cheese patty that was deep fried and served with a mint sauce. This was followed by a sort of spicy creamed spinach and corn and a thick mixed veggie sauce that we enjoyed with Naan and another interesting bread that I forget the name of. On top of all this we had a rice dish that was baked in an oven with a dough covering. The waiter brought this out and when he cut the dough cover and rolled it back to reveal the treat inside the aroma was overwhelmingly appetizing. I was stuffed from all we had had already but I knew I would devour this rice. Feeling satisfied and $28 dollars poorer (I know… $28 bucks! We splurged! A far larger expense than the $4-$6 meals we usually get) we got up and went downstairs. A huge party was coming in and it was a struggle to get out on the street. While we were dining the already overcrowded and chaotic streets had awakened to the night and people were everywhere. The restaurants that were empty on our way in were past capacity with people waiting outside. On the street right outside the restaurant a man had a trained monkey performing tricks. An adequate nightcap on a truly bizarre and exiting first day in India.

Posted by pmunson 07:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

India takes hold

Kolkata and Varanasi


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We intentionally chose to stay in a touristy area of Kolkata in hopes of a “soft landing” in the country that we expected to be the most difficult for us to travel. This was in vain as the hardships of life in this dirty city of some 14 million people was everywhere. Stepping out of the Cab that first night left us in another world, one that we had not experienced in all of our travels. I am reading a book called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It is a story about the Bombay Underworld and has a lot of applicable quotes to our first experiences in Kolkata. On that sticks out is “I remember the fear I’d felt, in that smear of air so foul it seamed to poison my lungs with every breath, and stain the very sweat on my skin”. This is an exaggeration but at times the pollution and smells of sewage in the streets were stifling.

We spent two days in Kolkata. We braved the subway system were Meghan found herself the only female on the train. The penetrating stares of the men that we pushed into the train with were unrelenting and incredibly awkward. In the days to come we would find out just how much of an attraction we are with our fair skin and blondish hair. In addition to the constant full on head turning stares, Meghan constantly is having her picture taken and we have been approached for photographs with young and old men, families, and babies.

We decided to go have a look at the Victoria Memorial. I did not know what to expect but it was certainly not the huge marble building we found. Apparently this is one of the finest buildings in all of India behind the Taj Mahal. It was surrounded by marvelous gardens and reflecting pools and we spent a long morning just sitting in the surrounding park. We were not alone. Apparently this is were the love birds go to kanoodle and young Indians were making out in the shade all around us
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Victoria Memorial
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A splash of color in a grey city.
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What is wrong with this picture?

Later that night we pushed our way past thousands of people choking the narrow sidewalks while constant busses, taxies, cars, motorcycles, trishaws, and human pulled rickshaws joined the cows, goats, dogs, and chickens to fill the street and spill out onto the sidewalks. The chaos was intense. The smells (just as many good as bad) and the sounds of constant honking and the yelling of salesmen. The constant touch of people brushing by and being pushed up against you in traffic overwhelmed all of our senses. Everywhere you looked their were destitute amputees and diseased beggars. Their was garbage lining the streets and clogging the gutters were fat rats fed like kings. The sidewalks were in horrible condition and people poured out into the already overcrowded streets and we were amongst it all. You could not go more than a few feet without a “new friend” offering to sell you something or take you on a tour of the city. Here everyone was an “entrepreneur” working out of a small shop, a rolling cart, a basket, their shoes, or just by lying on the street trying to collect rupees. We hired a small but sturdy rickshaw puller who could not have weighed more than 140 pounds to pull us back to our hotel. The man was all muscle and ran the ½ mile or so barefoot through traffic to get us home. All he asked was for 15 rupees, about 33 cents. I guiltily gave him a hundred.
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Kolkata intersection
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Street Art
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Our sturdy hand drawn rickshaw chauffer
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hand drawn rickshaw

I paint a dismal picture that seems far from enjoyable or tolerable but within the chaos lives a spirit that you can feel amongst the people. The people appear to thrive in this mess and do so with a rigor and determination that is absent most other places. Whether or not we will be able handle it for to long still lies to be seen but for now it is exiting, frustrating, overwhelming, and magically intimidating. A whole new experience awaits us in India and we will either sink or swim, only time will tell.

We set out to experience the extensive India railway system and decided to take the 15 hour journey amongst the locals in the lowest class sleeper car. The chaotic cab ride to the train station brought us through a sea of traffic and past a paper plant that caught fire and had been burning for three days. We crossed over the 705m Howrah bridge. A steal relic of the WW2 era that is said to be one of the worlds busiest bridges. The Howrah station itself was a huge building dating back to 1906 that serves over a million of travelers daily. Outside the building was a city of taxies, rickshaws, and porters carrying people and goods off in all directions. After stepping over a dead rat the size of a well fed cat laying in a gutter filled with sewage we found another city of people waiting for their train. There was very limited seating and most sat or slept on the dirty floor. We tossed out bags down and squatted.
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Howrah Train Station
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Pulling out of the Station

The lay of the train car was cut up into open cabins were to facing bunks were reserved for 6 people to sit. Come night time or whenever your cabin mate decided the backrest of the bunk folded upwards to a bed. There was a third tier above the fold up bed that was high enough to always be down. With this there was 2 sets of three tired bunks. Across from the cabin there was an addition 2 chairs facing each other with a bunk above them. The chairs folded together at night to form a lower bunk. It went like this down the length of each Sleeper car for all of the general sleeper class. We were set with 4 guys in our cabin and Meghan felt a little uneasy as their were not any other females in sight. During the middle of the night I awoke to someone patting me on the head. The window that I had closed earlier was now open and someone who was standing outside at the station we were stopped at was reaching through the bars and patting my head. I tell you sometimes you feel like you are from another planet in India being white and blond. I think the person patting my head or petting me just wanted to feel my silky smooth amber locks. I looked up half awake and without my glasses on and a abstract pastel watercolor lay beyond the railcar window. From what I could see 50 or 60 Indians were huddled together on the cold floor of the platform and all dressed in dazzlingly colored saris. The dim station light that was cast on this from above and the combination of my dreamy mind and fuzzy vision created an ethereal vision. Before I could rub the sleep from my eyes and find my glasses the train was moving again and it was gone.

We arrived Varanasi 20 hours later and 5 hours late. From the moment our weary feat hit the platform we were followed by touts, prospective tour guides, and rickshaw drivers. We overpaid for a taxi and joined an ox cart in the maddening traffic that backed up the streets even more so than what we had witnessed in Kolkata. After we were well away from train station the cabbie informed us he could not bring us to our destination because it was in a no drive zone. I almost had a fit from over-exhaustion but kept my cool and agreed on a spot to be dropped off. We found ourselves checking into a nice room at the friendly Hotel Sonmony exited to eat and take a nap. It did not take us long to realize that we were directly in front of the Harishchandra Ghat, one of the citie’s 2 cremation Ghat’s. The mountains of wood we passed on the street on our way in were waiting for mourning families to purchase and burn their dead relatives, this just outside our river view balcony. The Ganges is considered a holy river and Varanasi is a worldwide Hindu center and one of the holiest cities in India and the world. It is one of the worlds oldest and longest continually habituated city dating back to 1200 BC. People from all over India come to bathe in the Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sin and impurity. They also come to burn their dead on the riverbank and offer the ashes to mother Ganges, this acts provides liberatation from the earthly cycle of life and death. This all takes place out in the open in public and right outside our hotel window. I am not sure what I think of this or if I have even really processed it yet but for now I accept it for what it is, part of a new culture that I am traveling to experience, and we will gladly move hotels after the two nights we pre-paid for.
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Varanasi Traffic
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Funeral Procession as viewed from out balcony.
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Families cremating their loved ones in public at Harishchandra Ghat

After our nap we went out for a walk along the river past the holy Ghats. These were acres of stone steppes descending into the river for people to bathe. The river is low so there is a lot of riverbank exposed and you can walk the steps the entire length of the city waterfront, something you apparently can not do after the monsoon. We found the Dasawamedh Ghat and joined a gathering crowd along the steps to watch the nightly Ganga Aarti Ceremony with puja fire dance. This was about an hour long ceremony with 5 men performing a religious ceremony that paying homage to the river. It was a mixture of music, chanting, and a lot of bells along with a copious amount of burnt incense that filled the night sky. When it was all said an done all the Indians in the crowd descended to the main altar and the river to touch the flower petal offerings, fan smoke on themselves, and release lotus flower candles into the river. The scene was captivating and intense. It was a spiritual moment and with having only limited knowledge of the religion and no real idea about the rituals of the ceremony it was still enchanting. A little dazed and confused we stumbled up the stairs where a fast acting “senior” priest who blessed us by marking our foreheads with ink from flower petals before demanding an exorbitant donation. We paid him ½ of what he asked and moved on feeling a little tainted by the experience. Not sure if the “blessing” would really count at half price (Ha Ha) and if the guy was just a scammer targeting the white folk and looking for handouts. Anyway we spent the evening and a lovely diner with the mark on our foreheads before returning to our room, past another cremation, and fell into a deep sleep after the long night before hand.

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River Ceremony
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Indians arriving by boat to the river ceremony

Our first full day in Varanasi we set out on foot to explore the narrow galis or alleys of the old city that created an interesting maze along the riverbank. From the river you continuously see staircases that lead to narrow and winding alleyways running away from the water and disappearing into the city. Any one of them leads you into the nooks and crannies of the old city. The idea is that if you become lost you just work your way back to the river and figure out were you are. We did this for a few hours finding all sorts of hidden treasures and passing countless cows, monkeys, and goats. We also saw many old holy men with there faces painted and in their colorful robes out walking. It was a lot of fun and very interesting until we realized we had lost our way and no longer knew were the river was. After two hours of wandering around, a failed rickshaw ride the ended in a never ending traffic jam at road construction (AKA BIG hole in the road), We found ourselves back on the river well past and in the opposite direction of were we started from!

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Alley way veggie salesman
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Mostly Beans and Lentils
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Eat more chicken
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Varanasi River View
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Mysterious and inviting staircases leading up from the river to who knows where
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A nice spot to rest for a bit before getting back to blocking traffic and eating garbage.
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Bright colors for the upcoming Holi Festival
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Ganges River boats and the “wholly” polluted river

We were both exhausted and decided to just take it easy and hang out at the room for the rest of the afternoon. Is was about then that I started feeling the affects off a cold that I must have caught on the train from Kolkata and Meghan started to feel the effects of the Delhi Belly, that is said to be unavoidable on any trip to India. The combined effect kept us in for the evening and only I made out for a small bite of dinner. Despite our illnesses we rose the next day at 5:30 to get out on the river for the mandatory sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. This was an amazing experience the we shared with many other boats on the river. The pre dawn light on the old stone buildings radiated in a purplish glow before the rising sun lit the entire scene up with its golden glory that only exists for a few precious moments shortly after the sun lifts from the horizon. Many Indians were already out bathing and washing clothes as we set out before dawn and their numbers rose as we floated down river past the larger and more interesting Ghats.

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When we got back to shore we moved hotels to get away from the cremation Ghat and its accompanying all night noise. (They burn bodies on the ghat 24 hours a day!) After we had packed and moved we both quickly succumb to the sickness that was polluting our systems. Meghan was worse off than I and remained in the room for the next 36 hours, I did not do too much better with the sinus pressure that was making my head pound and keeping me up at night. We passed two days without much activity and on the day we were going to move on to Khajaharo we ambitiously took a trip out to the Hindi University to see a temple dedicated to Shiva. We were feeling well enough and decided to walk around a bit before heading back to the room. We were scheduled to take the train out at 11:30pm and as soon as we got back to the comfort of the room Meghan’s condition took a downward spiral and we almost did not go. On information that we could bump up to a more comfortable class we decided to go for it. Thus began my nightmare and the lowest point of our journey.
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Colorful Saris drying on the steps of the Ghat’s
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Shiva Temple
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Goat on a ledge
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Monkey, Cow, and old lady. Three’s company in Varanasi.

Posted by pmunson 07:51 Archived in India Comments (4)

The Joy of Travel part 3

Delhi Belly and beyond


View rtw on pmunson's travel map.

Back in Varanasi Meghan and I are both sick and are leaving to get on an overnight train to Khajuraho…

A loud and bumpy rickshaw ride brought across the city to the busy train station. Every inch of floor space was occupied by travelers who had spread out blankets on the cold concrete to sleep. Our 11:30pm train was delayed and re-scheduled to arrive at 12:10am. At 12:15, a train that was not ours pulled up and before it even came to a stop the platform was alive with swarms of people flowing from the 2nd class cars. It was an intense mob scene and where Meghan an I were on the platform was quickly overcome with people. I quickly slung both of our bags over my shoulder and retreated to an empty spot along the back wall of the platform. In the midst of all this our train had been switched to a different platform as it was arriving. I did not hear any of this over the static white noise that pretended to be a loudspeaker. Somehow another foreign tourist from Switzerland spotted us and told us about the switch. We hustled up and over the tracks to the new platform just as our train was arriving. The false promise of bumping up in class quickly fizzled out as the conductor was nowhere to be found. After running the length of the long train we boarded moments before the train departed. Somehow during all of this, the sickness that was still in my body was not affecting me, if it had we may have not made it out of Varanasi that night. We boarded the train to find a party going on in our cabin. In a space set for six there were at least 10 young guys that were all fired up. We waited patiently for them to get settled and when it did not happen I decided to just jump in and make our presence felt. This is one of the benefits of traveling in a country full of small people. When you need to throw your weight around you usually have the most. I pushed my way into the cabin. Cleared about 5 guys out of the way and packed our backpacks under one of the seats. Next it was on to their luggage. I informed them that we were pulling the bed up and to kindly move their crap. This was met with little resistance and before you know it we were both horizontal and hopeful to sleep. This did not come so easy. At first the guys wanted to talk, ask were I was from, the usual routine. Then they wanted to buy American dollars from me. They were all on a visiting Badminton team that had just won a tournament and were loudly celebrating. I gave in and almost forgot about how tired, frustrated, and sick I was while they all passed the one dollar bill around starring at it in wonder. As soon as I laid down my sickness returned and I could hardly breath. As there was not enough headroom to sit up this created a problem. Saliva was filling my mouth, I could not breath through my nose, and I felt like I was going to suffocate. With all this it was very difficult to fall asleep and my mood and health deteriorated. I was able to find sleep until I woke in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom I realized that my sandals were missing. While looking all around I noticed the floor was also all wet but did not really think twice about it figuring I had spilled my water bottle or something. Frustrated I gave up and wedged my feat into Meghan’s sandals and went to the restroom. Later that morning when we both finally got out of our beds we realized that my sandals had been stolen in the night and the wetness on the floor was actually vomit from one of the kids on the badminton team. This alone would not have been all that bad if it was not for the fact that our backpacks had absorbed most of the moisture and were dripping wet with stinking vomit. In utter disgust we wrapped up our bags up in the rain covers, something we should have done in the first place, and carried them off the train by the handles, as the harness was soaked. Unfortunately we were still 4 hours by local bus to Khajuraho. Feeling completely worked at this point and at the point of giving in to India, I accepted the first offer for a rickshaw at twice the acceptable price and let the guy carry my filthy bag. Before long we were at the bus station with tickets purchased and ready to go. Little did I know the ordeal that awaited us or I would have laid down whatever the cost of a private car. On the bus we were in the second row which was good for the bumps and the bends but my legs were to long to fit into the seat so I had to sit at an angle with my legs into the aisle. This became a problem as the bus stopped and picked up more and more people. I have been on many overcrowded “chicken” busses in all of our travels and usually I take it for what it is and usually have fun with it. This was unbearable. There was a sense of urgency amongst the passengers when the bus got really full and people were really fighting for position and pushing hard to get on and off. The fact that my legs were stuck out in the aisle in the front of the bus meant that as people shifted around each time the bus stopped, and it stopped a lot, my legs were in the way. Regardless of how little room there was and how crushed I already was people would push harder and harder until they got buy. Combined with the sickness, the night on the train with the puke and stolen sandals, this put me over the edge. When I was about to explode some young girl gets on the bus with an infant maybe a few months old. She is right beside me and is getting crushed in the aisle. The kid is wedged in between indifferent men who don’t notice or don’t care that they are practically suffocating an infant. I got up and offered her my seat when nobody else would and she quickly sat down without a word of thanks or even a smile. At this point some old woman took the opportunity to chisel her way in between me and the seat with every jostle of the bus and bend in the road. I did what I could to fight back, and I really felt like I was fighting back, but I was not going to push some old lady out of my way. After a few minutes the bus stopped and the girl with the baby got off and the old hag threw herself into my seat! She did not give me one look to ask permission, acknowledge she swiped my seat, or thank me for making it available. I always give my seat up to people who need it more than I do but this royally pissed me off. Fortunately we were not that far from Khajuraho and when we got there I immediately laid down and did not leave the room for the rest of the day. Instead I sat in a small room brooding over my frustrating day and night. My suffering was intensified by music that was blaring through the windows and walls from a town fair across the way. This would go on all day and into the night And I was very close to pulling the plug on India and fleeing to the cool wintery embrace of Colorado. Little did I know at that point of almost giving in that India would open up to me and draw me back in the days to come.

Posted by pmunson 09:46 Archived in India Comments (2)

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