Thursday, February 28, 2008

Varanasi and Bodhgaya

Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.
- Mark Twain

Our next stop after Delhi was Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi. Varanasi was founded approximately 3,000 years ago but many Hindus believe their deity, Shiva, founded it more than 5,000 years ago. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges river will cleanse a person of their sins and that dying in Varanasi will relieve a soul from the cycle of reincarnations.

We had heard horror stories of travel in India but had been spared any difficulties by staying with the Ericsons and driving around with Sanjay. The trip to Varanasi from the airport was a reminder that we would no longer enjoy those comforts in India. Our taxi driver politely informed us that the hotel we had selected was full, that we couldn't book a room for less than four times our agreed upon price, and that there were bugs. What he really wanted to do was take us to a different hotel so he could pick up the commission from our business. Despite our pleas to simply bring us to the hotel we asked for, he tried to drop us off at two different hotels. The final straw though was when he tried to pick up another man who was giving a sales pitch for a different hotel. Infuriated, I opened the door and pushed the salesman out of our stopped taxi and screamed at the taxi driver to take us directly to our hotel without stopping anywhere else. When we finally arrived at the hotel, the staff told us that the room we reserved was already occupied. After a brief argument over the definition of reservation and threatening to go to a different hotel, we finally were able to get the room we asked for at the agreed price. I spent the rest of the day in bed, trying to shake some flu like symptoms. That evening, we left the hotel for about an hour but that was enough time to grab dinner, check email and get our phone stolen. I should note, however, that we have not had such difficulties with hotels or taxis since.

The first day in Varanasi was not so pleasant but with some sleep and a new hotel, things seemed much different. We spent our remaining nights in a hotel in "the Ghats," the area near the Ganges river.

We took moto-rickshaw, a small three wheeled taxi , to our new hotel but stopped a few hundred meters away when the vehicle could no longer fit down the streets. The driver grabbed a local kid who led us through alleys to our hotel. Since Varanasi's development predated the concepts of city planning and vehicles, the area near the Ganges is a rats nest of narrow, colorful alleys filled with locals shops and of course cows.

We dropped our bags and decided to have lunch at our $5 per evening hotel's restaurant and in the process got our first glimpse of the Ganges. The water was low, as it is currently the dry season, and local families played and picnicked on the sand bar opposite town that's otherwise underwater. Looking down from the perch high above, we saw people soaping up only to wash themselves off in river water that is so dirty as to make any westerner cringe.

Our next priority was to hire a boat for a quick ride down the river. The best view of the town is from the water (pictured above). We passed Dashashwamedh Ghat, which is appropriately nicknamed Burning Ghat, at sunset and saw five simultaneous cremations.

We spent the remaining days getting lost in the alleys only to pop out somewhere familiar and get lost again.

And finally a quick video of a ride through Varanasi, as seen from the top of a moto-rickshaw.

Next, we took a train from Varanasi to Bodhgaya, the town where Prince Gautama Siddhartha found enlightenment and became the Buddha in 500BC. At all times the town is busy as pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world but when we visited the town was especially packed. High level delegations from Buddhists countries all over descended upon Bodhgaya for a two week chant-a-thon around the Bodhi tree. We spent a few hours one day trying to meditate but really just drank chai tea, listened to chanting, and chatted with monks.

The Mahabodhi temple was built where the Buddha achieved enlightenment and signs all over the complex let visitors know where he spent each day.

We also briefly stopped by the world's second largest Buddha statue.

Since there is little to do in the small, rural town other than visit temples and meditate, we spent some time making friends with local kids.

Of course, I found another friend along the way.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Agra, India: The Taj Mahal

After a day in Delhi we hopped on a train headed towards Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Once there, we spent a few hours looking for a room before getting frustrated and taking a break for dinner. Finally we found a room and turned in so we could be up early for sunrise.

Sadly, sunrise wasn't particularly notable because a layer of pollution and overcast skies but we did get to see the golden glow of early morning reflecting off the sandstone for one brief moment. I've included the two pictures above and below to show both the sun on the Taj and the reflection in the garden fountain.

In 1648 the Mughul Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj as a tomb for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The entire complex is a monument to symmetry which is apparent in every plant, fountain and pathway. The one break in the symmetry is Shah Jahan's coffin which lies next to his wife's, which is the focal point of the complex.
The picture below shows the south gate to the Taj Mahal. The 11 finials in the top center of this gateway are reflected on the backside and represent the 22 years it took to build the complex.
The square border around the arched entrance way above features calligraphy and excerpts from the Qur'an. The majority of the decorative elements on the Taj, including some of these scriptures, are created with semi precious stone inlays. The interior tomb features intricate flower designs on carved white marble lattice work. Each palm sized flower is created using at least 64 semi-precious stones.
Pictured below: The Taj from an adjacent mosque

We visited the Agra Fort next. The fort was originally commissioned by Akbar the Great but was greatly expanded by his grandson, Shah Jahan.

The fort is more like a walled palace with public audience halls, a princely mosque and this stately entrance way.
With massive building projects like the Agra Fort, the Taj Mahal, and the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, Shah Jahan's son Aurangzeb became worried about the kingdom's finances. To stop the spending Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in the Agra Fort. According to local lore, Shah Jahan died in this room, looking out at the Taj Mahal.

Our final stop was Akbar's Tomb, also known as Sikandra. Akbar was Emperor Humayun from Delhi's son and Shah Jahan's Grandfather. The photo below shows the tomb's impressive gateway adorned with intricate stone inlay.

Akbar commenced the construction in 1600 AD but the complex wasn't completed until 1613 AD, 8 years after his death. The photo below shows part of the beautiful mosaic in the tomb's entrance.

The photo below was taken halfway between the gateway and the tomb.

One of the most interesting aspects of Akbar's tomb is the surrounding grounds where deer and monkeys roam freely.

We rushed back to the Agra train station only to find out that our train had been delayed. By the time we got back to Delhi well pass midnight, we were exhausted and ready to fall asleep so we were quite happy to see Sanjay at the train station and Mr Ericson waiting up when we got back home. Thank you Mr and Mrs Ericson and Sanjay for helping to ease us into India, our experiences in Delhi simply would not have been as enjoyable without all your help.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Delhi, India

After an entirely unremarkable flight from Krabi to Bangkok, we decided to head into the city to kill part of our expected five hour layover. We picked up a few last minute souvenirs, ran some errands and ate one last plate of Pad Thai before returning to the airport for our flight. Unfortunately, as soon as we got back to the airport we found out the flight had been delayed and wound up with five hours on our hands again. We managed to entertain ourselves by reading in book stores, browsing duty free shops and reading in the lobby. At the very last minute we had a chance encounter with old friends, brothers Laird and Brad, from Delaware. By the time we finally cleared customs in Delhi at almost 3:00AM, our host, Mr. Ericson, was a sight for sore eyes.

When we woke up the next morning, the Ericson's recommended we take a "windshield tour" through Delhi with their driver, Sanjay. As we rolled past countless embassies lining wide, straight streets, I thought it strange that Delhi looked nothing like I had imagined. Sanjay then told us that Delhi is split in two distinct sections, new and old, and that we were in New Delhi which had been carefully designed and planned by the British.

Our first stop was Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President of India's house. Until 1950 this was known as "Viceroy's House" and was the residence of the British Governor-General of India.

The photo below shows a Secretariat which is adjacent to but not part of the Presidents house. The architect incorporated many traditionally Indian elements, like water and the dome, in the building's design.

The photo below shows the fence around the President's and is notable for the combination of British wrought iron and Indian red sandstone.

We left the President's house and drove past a few other landmarks including India Gate, a monument to Indian soldiers who died fighting in World War I. India Gate bears a great resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. After a few minutes of driving, the broad parkway turned into a narrow one lane street, traffic ground to a stop, horns started blaring and Sanjay announced "this is Old Delhi." Cows meandered lazily about the streets and men threw up their arms haggling with vendors while vehicles of every shape and size imaginable jockeyed for every precious inch of forward progress. This was what I thought of when I pictured Delhi.

Pictured below: a small bazaar in Old Delhi.

We also visited Jama Masjid, one of the largest and most well known mosques in India. The mosque was commissioned by Shah Jahan, of Taj Mahal fame, and completed in 1656. As we climbed the stairs, faithful Muslims rushed by, answering the call to prayer.

That evening we went out to dinner with Mr. Ericson who introduced us to uttapam and paratha, two classic Indian dishes that are not well known in the west.

The next day we took off by train for Agra and the Taj Mahal. This will be covered in the next post.

On the fourth day in India, we visited the National Museum where there are more than 200,000 pieces of art spanning 5,000 years of India's history. Later that evening we met up with Ryan and Brian, two of my friends from college who also happened to be in Delhi. They are sailing around the world with two other friends from Northwestern as part of a non-profit venture that links classrooms with global expeditions. You can follow their journey here.

The next day we visited Humayun's Tomb, the first example of Mughal style architecture in India.

Humayun ruled from 1530 to 1556 during which time he lost and regained control of India before massively expanding the Mughal territories.

Humayun was father to Akbar the Great and great grand father to Shah Jahan, both of Agra fame.

Pictured below: the crumbling entrance to a smaller tomb near Humayun's
Later in the day we visited Qutb Minar a complex of Islamic religious buildings dating from the late 1100s.

The centerpiece is a 72.5 meter tall tower but the many crumbling buildings and intricate carvings are far more interesting.

Pictured below: carvings on a prominent wall
Pictured below: carvings from the interior of a tomb

Pictured below: the complex from its entry, the base of the tower is visible on the left side

Ellie and I were concerned that we might run out of room in our passports on account of profligate stamping by customs agents in Hong Kong. We took advantage of some spare time on our last day in Delhi to stop by the US Embassy and request extra . We walked past hundreds of Indians waiting in line to apply for Visas and stepped back on to American soil for just a brief moment.

Finally, we visited Tughlaqabad, the crumbling remains of a fort city built in 1321. The city ran out of water and was abandoned only six years after it was built but some impressive fortifications still stand.

Delhi has grown around and over top of the massive complex, so in many places there are modern houses and businesses where the old fort used to stand. In some areas though the remains of buildings and roads are still visible.

We hopped around the ruins for more than an hour and covered only a fraction of the complex.

The next morning we boarded a plane for Varanasi and the holy Ganges River!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Southern Thailand and the Islands

We boarded the plane in Chang Mai, looking forward to spending some time on the west coast of southern Thailand, also known as the Andaman Coast. Unfortunately the flight from Chang Mai to Bangkok was late and we had to sprint through the airport to get to our connecting flight. Fortunately we caught the flight and made it to Krabi without any issues. By the time we arrived, all the ferry's and buses had left for the day so we had to spend the night in Krabi before moving on to somewhere more scenic. With views like this, however, Krabi isn't too bad on the eyes either.

After a morning updating blogs, we hopped on a bus and two ferries to Ko Lanta Yai, an island just south and west of Krabi. The island is less known, and (luckily) thus less touristed, than the nearby Ko Phi Phi and Phuket. Still, many hotels were already booked so we spent a few hours looking for a room in the oppressive midday heat. Tired, hungry, and grumpy, we finally found a hotel on Long Beach with just enough time to see the sun set and forget about all the travel related hassles from that day.

The next morning, all of our ambitions seemed to melt away at the first sight of white sand beaches and turquoise water. We spent the day reading on the beach with not nearly enough sunscreen. Again, the sunset couldn't have been better.

Pictured below: Ellie and I catching the last remnants of sunset in Ko Lanta. The small lights on the horizon are fishing boats at sea.

The next day, we rented a motor bike and explored the island. There were a few beaches but the sand was not as white nor the water as clear as Long Beach. There was however a goat - the first we've seen since Nepal.

The most interesting thing were tsunami warning signs along the road. On that note, Ko Lanta was largely spared from the tsunami in 2004 - today these are the only signs that anything happened.

That evening we had dinner with our friend, Bendigo, and ate fried fish on the beach. Later that evening, we saw fire dancers. The dancer in the center is twirling a flaming baton while the two outer dancers swing poi, which are somewhat like flaming nunchucks.

The next morning, we took a ferry to Ko Phi Phi Don, one of two small islands north of Ko Lanta. Ko Phi Phi Don is the larger of the two islands and was devastated by the tsunami in 2004. The area has been almost completely rebuilt, owing to the strength of the tourist industry, and except for high prices, no major signs remain. Our hotel for the evening was, coincidentally, located on Long Beach. The other island, Ko Phi Phi Leh, is protected and thus has no inhabitants. As the setting for the 2000 movie, The Beach, it propelled the two islands to fame and has since attracted a steady stream of tourists.

Long Beach, pictured above and below, is the kind of beach you see in post cards. Aquamarine, verging on imperceptible water laps brilliant white sand beaches while further down the island rocky cliffs jut hundreds of feet straight up from the sea. Longtail boats are visible in both pictures - since the island has no roads these serve as the primary form of transportation between town and remote beaches.

Pictured below: Ko Phi Phi Don at night.

We left Ko Phi Phi the next day headed for Khao Lak, a small town on the mainland more than 100km north. First, we had to take a long tail boat from Long Beach to a ferry, that dropped us off in Phuket where we caught a bus to Khao Lak. Pictured below: not so gracefully climbing into the longtail boat, laden with six months of gear.

If our days in Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi seemed lazy, it was not due to lethargy but an attempt to save our budget for greater things - namely scuba diving. The Similan Islands lie about 70km west of Khao Lak and feature some of the finest diving in the world.

Our dive site, Richelieu Rock, was teeming with marine life. We saw neon fish of every shape and size and creatures hiding in each crack and crevice. Unfortunately the picture below doesn't do justice to the vivid undersea world but schools of fish are visible in front and behind us. At times, there were so many fish that the visibility, 30 meters that day, was reduced to less than ten meters. We saw a great number of shrimp, crab, eels, urchins, puffer fish, and clownfish, among many others - my favorite though were the cuttlefish. These bizarre fish look like a combination between a squid and a flounder wearing a tutu and have a chameleon-like ability to change their color to match the surroundings.

We spent our final day hopping between local buses to get from Khao Lak back to Krabi. Tomorrow morning we will catch a flight to India where we will be for the next month.

Finally, one more picture of the fire dancers in Ko Lanta.