Thursday, December 6, 2018

Thailand: touring Bangkok, Phuket & Krabi

We landed at Bangkok at 10. 30 pm and went for visa-on-arrival process. We filled out a form. Despite a long check-list of required documents, the only proof that they asked for was the to & fro tickets. After 15 minutes of waiting, we were beckoned and handed the stamped passports.
We headed out to our hotel (Holiday Inn Express) and reached at around 12.30. Hungry and tired, we checked in and asked for some food. We were told that there was no kitchen and suggested we go down to the Mc Donald’s attached to the hotel which had plenty of beef, pork and chicken options but nothing that we vegetarians could eat. We had booked ourselves into this hotel at Siam, in the centre of the city but found nothing to eat in its neighborhood. Walking around at 1 in the night, we were looking for something to eat when a kind tuktukwala (tuktuk: like the autos in India but bigger) stopped and asked, “India?” and promised to take us to an Indian restaurant. I normally avoid Indian food outside India but then having no other recourse, got into his tuktuk and visited the Indian restaurant, which, as imagined, served an absolutely bland fare. By the time we slipped under covers, it was 2 am!
The next day was a trip to Ayutthaya. We started at 10 am, took help of the hotel concierge and booked a cab for THB 2000 to Ayutthaya and back.  All along the way, we were taken to several temples which belonged to many centuries back and were mostly in ruins. Though history interests me, after a point of time I was pretty tired from seeing ruins after ruins. There was the palace thrown in as well, but at around 11.30 am, at the beginning of the tour, it was too hot for us to enjoy going around. In the process, I got severely sunburnt.
The next day was the flight to Phuket in the evening. Therefore, we went for shopping at Pratunam, the street shopping at Bangkok during the first half of the day. For me, it was very much like the Sultan bazaar of Hyderabad, with crowds jostling against each other. There was a great fear of pick-pocketing and we were very careful, clutching on to our wallets and phones. We bought some clothes suitable for beach. At Pratunam clothes were as cheap as THB 65 for a t shirt! We also shopped at the adjacent Indira market where you find stuff priced slightly higher comparatively but still cheap.
We ate some Thai food at the food courts there. When we emerged onto the main road from Indira market, we found, to our astonishment, a line of Indian restaurants, mostly vegetarian! So, for people who want to stick to a familiar cuisine, this is for you guys.
After shopping, we rushed back to the hotel, picked up our luggage and headed to the airport to Phuket.

At around 8 pm, we arrived at Phuket at a fairly better time than we did at Bangkok. Phuket looks like a sleepy Kerala village. We booked ourselves at Malika Hotel at Phuket Town. There is lots of greenery with long coconut trees swaying all along your route from Phuket airport to the town.
Even at 8 pm, we (again) found no food or kitchen in the hotel open at that time. Too tired to go out, we survived on some salvaged food from our bags.
We then held a discussion with the hotel receptionist for our next day’s plans. Don’t be fooled by the frail appearance of the receptionist. On travel review sites, people have mentioned about how this poor, frail thing carried your suitcases to the top floor in absence of a lift and the bell-boys. (She  actually sprinted upstairs with two 10 kg suitcases in each hand!
I would say definitely, in this case, appearances can be so deceptive!
She booked us to a Phi Phi island trip at THB 2000 each. Later, we found out that the people from other hotels had paid 900 to 1200 max for the same trip.
Though the hotel was set in a serene environment, it has no lift and no phone to call the receptionist! Just imagine trying to ask for something…
The next morning, we set out for a trip to Phi Phi islands and several other islands and beaches en route.
Organized by the APJR group, the whole trip experience was rather mediocre. 
After Phi Phi islands, we returned in the evening at 5 and went out for a stroll and dinner in Phuket town. After knowing how much the hotel could overcharge us by, we decided to go to one of the several tourist centres to book a taxi for the next day to Krabi. By now, we knew better than to arrive late to a hotel and starve.
But we found our driver, Mr. Chai, through a car mechanic’s shop. We had strolled by to ask for a tourist centre who could book us a cab in Phuket Town and they called up this excellent driver who charged us cheaper than the tourist centres did . He was a thorough professional, arriving on dot the next day at our hotel, drove at optimum speed and with great care to Krabi. Mr. Chai can be reached at 081-6062485.
Phuket to Karbi is exactly 3 hours. Starting at 11. 30, we arrived at Krabi at 2.30 pm.

Reaching our hotel IBIS, Krabi at 2.30 pm, just in time for lunch, was a vast improvement when compared to arrival times at Bangkok and Phuket.
Krabi, at 4,709 km² is the largest island in Thailand and, therefore, will have you puzzled about where to stay. Look no further…Ao Nang it is. It is closest to the beach and has a 2 km stretch of way-side shopping, stretching from our hotel to the beach. During our foray for lunch, we chanced upon a Thai- cum-Indian restaurant. We ordered Thai food sharing our requirements with its Indian owner and Thai chef.
The next day we went to a 4-island tour through the hotel @ 1000 THBs each. Where Phuket beaches are for those who swim, snorkel, dive etc. Krabi is more of pristine, clean beaches and fine sands. In sharp contrast to the APJR group we went with in Phuket, Krabi Mukandaman Travel, (phone: 075-695-591) was very professional. They had far superior boats, uniformed personnel and the jewel in the crown was the excellent tour guide who was so mindful of our needs, took great care and sprinkled his conversations with much witticism.
Mat, our cheerful tourist guide

To experience the feeling of being one with the nature, do visit Ao Nang beach in the evening. A quiet peace engulfs you as you walk away from the noise of the main road towards the beach.
The environment is electrifying with only the noise of waves splashing against the shores as you walk past many restaurants of various cuisines, massage parlours, live music, candle light dinners…the works!
Next time, it is straight Krabi for me!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thailand: preparing for the journey

When you want to visit a country, the first thing you need to plan is about which parts of the country you want to tour. This again depends on why you want to travel to that country in the first place.
Ok, so here is how I decided. I got Diwali holidays for a couple of days at office. Combining that with three days’ leave and 4 days of weekends, gave me a solid 9 days off. I decided to keep one day to myself to sorting and unpacking the mess post-travel before joining office from Monday.

So, what could be done in these 8 days?  Looking at Thailand map made me realize that the names of places that float around were at quite a distance from each other, two cities (Bangkok & Pattaya) in the North Thailand and two cities (Phuket & Krabi) in the South. A preliminary research made me realize that doing all four, plus travel in the given duration was tough.

Bangkok was, after all, just another city, like any other city in the world. Pattaya was a city famous for its night life. Could easily skip that. That means we devote our time to the South where the delightful islands of Phuket and Krabi lay. So, the plan was made: the briefest of times at Bangkok and the maximum time at Krabi.
Flights tickets from Hyderabad to Bangkok and back were booked. Extensive research done on which hotels to stay at, depending on the proximity to prominent landmarks, and booked. All these activities were done online and took about 14 days. By then, I was about a week away from travel and didn’t have the time to apply for visa from Hyderabad, as apparently, we need to show proof of to and fro tickets plus where we planned to stay during the entire duration of our Thailand stay.
Next, was applying for Forex. This was the easiest of all tasks as I could book the forex online and get it delivered the same day. I got it at the rate of Rs. 2.89 to 1 THB. I applied for 15000 THB, hoping it will do. The cards were always there, anyways.
We stayed in two 4-starred hotels and one 3-starred (where the 4-starred one wasn’t available). We didn’t travel by public transport and always took the cab. What I mean to say is that we definitely weren't on a money-saving mode. Yet, we only incurred a cost of 22000 THB for our sight-seeing, food and shopping expenditure. We swiped the card when we thought we might fall short of cash.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A vegetarian foodie in Thailand

In India, we vegetarians not only have access to a great variety of food from across the globe, but also find the assuring green dot marking all vegetarian food. We realize how blessed we are here when we go to countries where we aren’t as privileged.
When we speak of breakfast buffets in Hyderabad, the lavishness of the spread is incredible. Plus, any non-veg food is normally placed separately and at a distance from the vegetarian food. Such checks ensure that vegetarians get to eat only vegetarian food.
When I go to any place, in India or abroad, I steer clear of Andhra food. I have it at home every day, anyways. I try to eat Gujarati food in Gujarat, Bengali food in Bengal, Malayali food in Kerala…
In the same way, I eagerly looked forward to eating Thai food in Thailand.
Why getting Thai vegetarian food is not easy in Thailand
First, nearly 90% of the Thais do not speak English. So how do you make them understand what you want? Second, what is the definition of vegetarian food? All sea-food is vegetarian for them!
Okay, so how did I go about taking care of this challenge?

At the first hotel we stayed, I asked the receptionist, who seemed intelligent and knew more than a smattering of English, to write the above note for me. The note states that 'this person has below food restrictions: meat, eggs, seafood, mushroom'.
They may not understand the meaning of vegetarianism like we in India do but they take food restrictions very seriously. When I showed the above note at the hotels we stayed, I was cautioned about those items in the breakfast buffet (which, in short, is nearly everything on the table). We ended up having loads and loads of fresh fruits, croissants, bread, butter, cereal…
Back in Hyderabad, I always found non-local fruits expensive and flavorless. But here we could eat the freshest exotic fruits every day.
So, even if deprived of those 10-15 items on the breakfast menu, the restaurants generously offered to prepare 2-3 Thai food items exclusively for us.
Here is an instance to show how seriously they take your food restrictions. At a restaurant we ordered some pizza and fries. (Burger was ruled out.) We were cautioned about the presence of egg in the pizza base when the stewardess took the order, but the chef came out of the kitchen after a while saying that he couldn’t serve us the fries as they would be fried in the same oil that the chicken was! I wonder if, even in India, we find such honest confession!
Back here, we think that if nothing else is available, we have at least the Macs and KFCs. In Thailand the burger would inevitably be made of chicken, beef, pork…vegetarian burger in these places is totally unheard of…
At any restaurant, do not rely on the waitresses. Have the chef called. He will give you the true picture of what is veg and what is not. Basically, there is no veg food on the buffet. Don’t believe even if the waitress says so. It is simply because she doesn't know!
Almost every item has a base of fish sauce/oyster sauce. Even potato wedges which looked so tempting was forbidden as it was sprinkled with chicken powder!
Certain food being kept separate is something we experienced in Krabi only. Krabi has a substantial number of Muslims and here the pork is kept separately, far from all the other food.
Water is a premium here. Water is kept in one of the dispensers, along with the juice dispensers. The restaurant personnel may wink at your attempt to carry away a morsel or two from the buffet table but any attempts to fill your bottle with water is frowned upon.
Drinking water from taps is not available at any of the tourist spots. You must buy bottled ones.
Vegetarian food is construed as Indian food. The cab driver who took us about in Bangkok also attempted to take us to an Indian restaurant.
But when we insisted on a Thai cuisine, he took us to this quaint place which served only Thai vegetarian food! Can you believe that, in a country that thrives on non-veg food, we found this nugget...a small dining room attached to the home of a 60-year old home cook.

Those tastes still linger in the mind and I have found no match to them in my entire Thailand journey.
If nothing else, there are abundant 7-Eleven grocery stores which contain supplies of bread, butter, marmalades that helps you stay afloat.The labels, the ingredients, all product information is in Thai and then out comes the above note again to ensure that the food you just bought contains no meat. The 7-Elevens come to your rescue especially as some of the hotels close the kitchens at night times.

The bread, unlike the dry version we find in Hyderabad, was the softest and freshest I tasted in a long while.
With that note in hand, I got to experience the best of Thai vegetarian food in Thailand.
Yet, if you still want to eat Indian food in Thailand, Indra market at Pratunam, Bangkok has a couple of them in their food court. And when you come out of Indra market, you find at least 5-6 (as far as the eye could see) of Indian restaurants lined up on the main road. So, you have your shopping and food at the same place.
Two things I strongly recommend there: the sweetest and freshest pineapple that are found in abundance. Two, tender coconut and tender coconut ice cream. These are the best you’d ever taste.

Monday, November 12, 2018

To bottu or not to bottu?


I went through a hassle-free security check at the airport in India and at Bangkok immigration. 
The security system at Thailand doesn’t comprise frisking at any of its airports. Your luggage is scanned, and then you are let through a metal-detector. 
On one of their domestic flights, however, after I passed through the door, I was called aside by the female security personnel, frisked and then let through. I was the only one there with a bottu on my forehead. 
I was wondering how many of the security people understand this bottu culture of South India and that Hindus, identified by their bottu, normally do not give reason for suspicion at airports. 
As a South Indian, I was reluctant to do away with the bottu that I am used to from my birth. But, I did remove it, and then onwards I wasn’t stopped or questioned in any of the Thailand airports. 
It went back on through the duration of the trip but at airports, it came off.

So, on the last leg of my journey from Bangkok to Hyderabad, I was bottu-less. 
Okay, as a prelude, I am fair-complexioned, but I wasn't aware how it would, in combination with the bottu-less state, give rise to these interesting occurrences…

1) At the immigration center, I am asked my nationality as an answer to my query on filling the immigration forms.
2) A woman at the airport exit asking me if I was interested in foreign exchange.
3) The taxi driver asking me in English where I wanted to go.

A foreigner in foreign countries anyway, and in your own too?
So, to bottu or not to bottu? 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The woes of traveling by Hyderabad Metro Rail - Part IV

The last and final part to the topic on Hyderabad Metro Rail.
This post contains a list of miscellaneous things that bother me…and also some good things about the metro.

Smart cards: Are they really smart?
You buy a smart card for traveling by the metro train every day.  Once the money is used up, you recharge it. There is no upper or lower limit to the recharge. You deposit Rs.100/- when you buy the card. The advantage is not having to stand in queues every time you buy a ticket. There is also a 10% discount on your ticket whenever you take a ride. That translates to a mere Rs. 4/- off on a Rs.40/- ticket.
If, God forbid, your card is lost, and you have no record of the long id number on the card, you are doomed. You have lost the deposit money plus whatever you have recharged it with.
If you plan to return the smart card, you are refunded only Rs. 60 of the 100/- deposit. Why? Tax, it seems. Remember, you are not warned of these charges when you buy the card. At the time of purchase, you are told that the deposit is returned when you surrender the card.
I think Metro should also think of linking to a bus commute after one gets off the train.

Lack of neatness:
Look at the thin film of dust on the staircase railings, dirt and pigeon shit on stairs, dirt on train floors…its everywhere.
In the initial days of metro travel, when the train was sparkling new, I boarded the train at Ameerpet and saw to my horror that someone had left large puddles of pickle oil on the floor. People were very nonchalantly stepping into it and spreading it everywhere else. I quickly grabbed some tissues from my bag and mopped up the oil so that it didn’t spread elsewhere.
A few tissues later, I saw that I was not only mopping up the oil but loads of dirt along with it! For me, it was mana metro, mana Hyderabad, but looks like this sentiment isn’t shared by the metro personnel. 

The value of time:
Time isn’t really valued much in the metros. We aren’t really aware of when the next train arrives. There is a display at random about the arrival of the next train but then there is no strict adherence to that timing.
The duration of 6.30 minutes, though an improvement on the earlier 15 minutes, can still be improved. If a train is missed, waiting for nearly 7 minutes for the next one can delay your office-reporting time by those many minutes. And time is valuable in the morning hours. 
Those elaborate, international-airport-like security checks…are they really necessary? Many a time, you hear the train overhead leave when you are trying to do several activities at the security gate: remove water bottle--push your luggage through the scanner--put the water bottle back—gather your bag—lug it back on your shoulders--take out the smart card---swipe the card--put it back and then… trot across the concourse---ride up the escalator. By this time, the train is gone. And all you want to do once you reach the station, is scram across the floor and quickly into the about-to-leave train.

The crowds: 
The crowds are thickening now as more and more people start traveling by the metro. The crowds add more noise.
Also, several outlets are set up at Ameerpet station. They make the station appear more crowded.
Does the regular commuter, think of stopping to buy something at the end of the day? All you think of is, when does the next train come and when do I get into one and go home as soon as possible?
The jostling to get into the available 3 coaches has started happening as there is no queue system; the scramble to get into the lifts has also started.
At times, the non-functioning air condition in the train, especially at night times puts the burgeoning crowds to great inconvenience.
Autos are lined up at the water tank side of Tranaka metro station in such a way that they obstruct the travelers from entering the station area.

Some good things: 
The ticket issuing system is smooth. The ticketing staff has always been pleasant to interact with.
Lost property found: I lost and got back my umbrella which I had left in the train while getting off at Ameerpet.
Very thoughtful of them to build a FOB at Paradise station. Getting off or onto the station becomes very easy!
The entire infrastructure is very beautiful. The area around the station, the station, the train, the platform, the drivers… all are world-class. Some stations are kept very clean (like Tarnaka).
Area around Miyapur is like a park where you want to go to relax.
It is heartening to have a commute in Hyderabad which doesn’t make you wait too long and normally sticks to the 6.30 minutes wait time. It is also one of the fastest modes of transport on Hyderabad roads.

Waiting eagerly for HMR to extend the services to Hi-Tech city. It will be a great blessing to thousands of people commuting from the other end of the city.
All my 4 posts regarding different aspects of the Metro are for providing feedback so that if these teething issues are taken care of, we can anticipate smoother operation when the routes are extended.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The woes of traveling by Hyderabad Metro Rail - Part III

The third in the series is one on NOISE in metro station and the train.

How we Indians thrive on noise!
By the time a person reaches Ameerpet station on the last leg of his daily commute, after 8+ hours of work, 3+ hours of commute, at the end of a tiring day, he meets this scenario…
Ameerpet is an interchange station and therefore more crowded than the other stations.
But that still doesn’t warrant the continuous cacophony from the pervasive speakers. You wander if you are in a metro station equipped with the latest infrastructure or in some village fair.
A regular commuter, laden with a bag weighing 5+ kgs on his back, tired, wanting to go home cannot expected to be tolerant of the continuous announcements from the mikes placed all around Ameerpet metro station.

Please do not touch unclaimed baggage. If you see one, report to the authority.
Travel beyond what you paid for is a punishable offence.
Please do not cross the train tracks. It is a punishable offence
Now you have bike facility at xxx metro stations.
Please note the change in metro timings from xxx to xxx on weekends and on weekdays.
You are under CC camera surveillance. Misuse of alarm is observed.
Do not lean on the doors.
Stand behind the yellow line till the train stops.
While boarding or deboarding, don’t get in while the doors are closing.

I forget the others. But this goes on….AND all these in THREE languages continuously in a loop.
People on mobile phone trying to talk louder over this noise…
The security personnel, especially at Ameerpet, talking to one another in loud tones.
The noise continues in the train with some commercials screaming at you inside the train, people speaking on phones, playing music and videos.
In one of the trains, the door behind the drivers’ cabin makes a chattering noise throughout the journey.
There are very few announcements cautioning people from playing music on their phones.They don’t care. But for a commuter, to be subjected to insensitive intrusion into their space, strict monitoring would certainly be helpful.
There is just SO much noise to put up with at the end of the day!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The woes of traveling by Hyderabad Metro Rail - Part II

The security system

Modern day dictum requires the use of security system at entrances to crowded and eminent places.
The system is a pain for anyone. Who likes standing at the entrances and be probed, patted, have pockets checked, bags searched…? You learn to grin and put up for the 1-2 times mall visits a month, or 4-5 airport visits a year.
But what when you commute by the metro and are subjected to this kind of checking twice a day? And what if rules keep getting added with the least concern for the commuter? And executed with the least politeness? Being treated with suspicion twice a day is no fun.
When I started using the metro for travel, I was asked to put the backpack which contains, a laptop, an extra pair of shoes I carry every day, a water bottle and my wallet, on the conveyor belt for scanning.
I used to carry my lunch bag in my hand and a slim 7"x 7" sling bag across the front containing change for Rs. 500/- for my daily commute, my office ID card and my cell phone.
All the travelers are asked to put their bags on the conveyor belt and have the luggage scanned. I comply to this.
A few days later, one of the security guards asked me to put my sling bag also on the conveyor belt. Containing just a little cash, a cell phone, the metro card and the house keys, the bag is just too thin to cause any suspicion of a physical threat. A physical examination would have been enough. But the guard insisted I put it on the belt. The cloth bag comes without a zip or a button and I ran the risk of the contents falling out in the transaction. Moreover, exposing my iPhone to the hazard of x-rays twice a day was unacceptable to me. I feared it would cause a damage.
So, now I have another piece of luggage to be added to the backpack...this sling bag.
Third, my lunch-box is made of several tiny plastic boxes containing tiny portions of various items, solid and liquid. Because it is plastic, it tends to topple over when I keep it on the conveyor belt.
The security guards insisted that I put it on the belt too. During the return journey, the empty set of tiffin boxes would be knocked off the conveyor belt and fall to ground because of its lightness. (Was a disaster when I tried carrying a pastry daintily back home one day).
The next item to be added to the backpack in addition to the laptop, shoes, a water bottle, my wallet and the sling bag was now this lunch box.
I start out from home now by holding the cell phone, the house keys and the metro card in my hand. Rest of the things are now stuffed into the back pack, to be placed on the conveyor belt.
The next set of instructions came a few days later. ‘Take out all the water bottles from your bags and hold it in your hand’. Ok. So now, I go to the conveyor belt, wait for a few seconds to take the water bottle out of its slot in the back pack, keep it in my hand along with the house keys, the metro card and the cell phone, enter the cordoned security area for a physical examination by the hand-held device, emerge on to the other side, collect my backpack, re-insert the bottle in the backpack, swipe my metro card at the entrance, run upstairs while balancing the water bottle, the metro card, the cell phone, the house keys and a heavy backpack on the back,  and with no hands left to hold onto the railings of the escalator, I risk my safety.
The new weight of the backpack, now also with an umbrella due to rainy season, is around 6 kgs.
When I start from office, I perch the bag on the table to enable me to push it on to the shoulders. Heaving it across the shoulders otherwise, causes the handles to graze the arms.
Security system at Ameerpet is a nightmare. The conveyor belt there is just a few inches above ground level. And one needs to pause in front of the belt, peel off the back pack, put it on the belt, bend down again on the other side to pick up the heavy backpack and put it back on your shoulders as there is no table or perch to rest your backpack on.
Another very dangerous thing one observes at some of the conveyor belts is that the they keep running and have no perch preceding or following the running belt because of which, if you wear a flowing dress, beware, your dress is likely to be caught. Second, there is no table or perch when the bags emerge on the other side and that’s why a security guard is allotted to collect your bags to prevent them falling off the belt.
The most ironic thing about the security is that as your bag goes through the x-ray machine, sometimes, there is no guard sitting there to watch the contents of your bag. You could put anything inside.
And sometimes the guard is busy doing important things like making calls as your bag is supposed to go through. And you emerge on the other side wondering why your bag hasn’t come through yet. You see that it is still sitting perched at the entrance to the conveyor belt as it is not pushed onto the belt by the guard. So you go back, push your bag through the entrance onto the conveyor belt and breathe in relief as the bag comes through this time.
To add to all these woes twice a day, is the utter lack of empathy and politeness by the security staff.
Why are we commuters subjected to such security system twice a day?
How are they going to manage when the crowds thicken due to extension of routes?

Having a walk-through metal detector plus the hand-held one will give the commuter the freedom to to carry his stuff whichever way he wants to and also save him from the rules which change ever-so-often (about things that can go into or need to be removed from the bags).