Friday, 27 September 2013

CRUMBLING COLONIALS AND CHAOTIC KALI- Calcutta


When we initially bought our super cheap flights to Calcutta with Air Asia, we were happy to see a very civilized arrival time in the afternoon. The problem with super cheap flights with Air Asia is they are prone to time changes, and hence we found ourselves bleary eyed, but happy, at the prepaid taxi booth in Calcutta airport at 1.30am after a three hour flight from Bangkok.


Sleeping Calcutta

Still sleeping.....


Sleeping through the noise


The ride into town was uneventful apart from several herds of goats inexplicably on the road in the middle of the city, but when we reached the backpacker haven of Sudder Street, we remembered that most of Calcutta shuts up very early, and we were somewhat stranded. Our choice of guesthouse, the Paragon, was “full”(another way of saying “We are sleeping, piss off”), so we took the second room shown to us next door at Maria Hotel for one night (we declined the first after seeing several bed bugs running over the top of the mattress). We eventually got into the Paragon the next morning, and amazingly not only did we have the exact room we had 3 years ago, but it’s still the same price in rupees. The weird thing is, back then it translated into AU$9, and now, it’s a bargain at AU$6, thanks to the rupee crashing recently. And, it’s been “renovated”, sort of, with a lick of paint making a big difference to the room- it’s just a pity the repairs didn’t stretch to the toilet (see photo)! Being the end of the monsoon, it wasn’t too busy, but there is always the odd odd-ball around in these places. Apparently there had recently been a woman staying who had 11 cats- hopefully not in our room, although it would explain the renovations! A big pot plant on the terrace was another interesting feature.


Guesthouse toilet

Newly "renovated"room at Paragon Hotel


As much as we adore India, our first days back are always like falling in love again!! Calcutta was our first point of entry last trip also, but that time, unfortunately we became sick within the first couple of days, and couldn’t enjoy it as much as we did this time around. We were full of enthusiasm at being back in India, and spent days walking and exploring new areas of the remarkable and historic city. Instead of catching the train out we had planned to after only a few days (only runs once a week), we decided to stay another week to fully appreciate Calcutta


Beautiful doorway

Happy samosa makers

Bidi maker/seller



One of our first stops was Blue Sky Cafe- an institution here, having been open for about 40 years. When we first visited Calcutta in 1997, it was a tiny, crowded stall on a corner, full of hungry travellers, and one lone waiter running around serving everyone. Sham is still working there (he’s been there for 21 years), and recognises us every time we go back, but the restaurant has changed beyond recognition with air-con, fancy chairs and tables and even WIFI. The food is excellent, and the atmosphere terrific, now with many more Indian customers mixing with the backpackers.


With Sham at Blue Sky Cafe


After getting Sal kitted out in some India-appropriate clothing at the chaotic New Market, and getting Richard transformed from a hairy man into a smooth one, we tried to change our body clock from Thai time (getting up mid morning and staying up late at night) to Indian, by getting up before 6am, and exploring before the noise and crowds start. India’s great for early risers, with plenty of stuff still going on in the market areas especially, and not as much chance of getting run over by a rickshaw/car/bicycle/motorbike/truck. 


New threads


After 15 years, Richard was surprised at the color of his beard, and wasn't impressed!
We're half way there
Back to normal!!




Quiet mornings
Busy afternoons




Something we’ve always wanted to do here is ride the trams (Sal, being from Melbourne, loves a good tram ride!), but for some reason never got around to it. We were determined this time, and walked to the tram terminus, and sat patiently waiting for the tram we wanted to take, which eventually came an hour later rattling slowly along the tracks. It was a charming trip to the northern part of the river area- surprisingly uncrowded compared to the packed buses hurtling past us on the road, and for 5 rupees (AU 8 cents) a pretty good deal! We subsequently took several other trams around town, finding them a slow, but quirky means of transport.



Lovely old trams

Tram ride along College Rd

On the trams


River ferries are equally inexpensive, and such an attractive way to see the Hooghly River. The metro is an excellent experience if timed right- cheap, clean, regular, fast and, out of peak hour, nearly empty. Unfortunately, peak hour is heaving with commuters, making it difficult to board (and breathe!)



Ferry on the Hooghly River

Metro entrance

A suburban train line

Hard slog, Sudder Street

But mostly, we just walked and walked, savouring the crumbling colonial architecture we are such fans of and the chaos of the streets, where stalls selling chai, omelettes, breads, fresh juices, curries, bangles, scarves and clothes share the pavements with shoe cleaners, ear cleaners, fortune tellers, beggars and barbers. It’s all out there in your face!


Professional typist at work on the pavement

Chickens, New market

More chickens, New Market

Cleaning up the rubbish



A fantastic find this time was the South Park Street Cemetery. In typical Indian fashion, it’s something mentioned briefly in the guidebook, and we’d never heard anyone talk about it before, but we arrived to find an incredible place nearly taken over by jungle, with huge ornate graves- many in the shapes of obelisks and pyramids from the Raj era, some as old as 1780s. The disrepair of the place, with bright green moss growing over everything including the paths, added to the feeling of discovering something wonderful.



Park Street Cemetery

Park Street Cemetery

Park Street Cemetery

Park Street Cemetery


Kalighat temple is the most important Hindu holy place in Calcutta, and from where the city got its name. We decided, in our enthusiasm, to join the throngs of worshippers in the line snaking around the temple, and catch a glimpse at the black blobby thing with eyes and a tongue that is the fearsome goddess Kali. As there is no photography allowed inside, here is a picture of Kali inside the temple from the internet:


Sacred statue



As is common in India, the closer we got to the temple door, the more excited and feverish the crowd became, and we struggled to stay together, and upright, as people pushed their way in, eager to throw their hibiscus flowers at the statue, and, of course, give the greedy priests money for the privilege. We were ready to make a donation in the box, when several priest started grabbing us, and yelling to give money now, so we instead legged it out of there as soon as we could. Not exactly a spiritual experience!!
More interesting to us was wandering around the surrounding streets looking at the “ticky tack” religious paraphernalia for sale, poking our heads into some of the lesser temples, and watching some young boys fish with a magnet in a disgusting festering stream for treasures.



Boys fishing for metal treasures with magnets, Kalighat

Kalighat

One photo Richard snuck in, inside the Kalighat Temple

Around Kalighat Temple



A more peaceful experience was Mother Theresa’s Motherhouse- the original building she set up to help the poor of the city. Now, in addition to the mission, there is a museum devoted to her simple life and philosophies, as well as her tomb- she died in 1997.


Food is always a treat when we first arrive in India, and after 3 years in South-east Asia, it was very special to have something different for our taste buds! Kati rolls were a new tasty treat, with flat bread fried with an egg, then wrapped with delicious fillings- a Bengali special. Indians do western food very well too- a left over from the Brits presumably, and porridge is always a favourite for us both. Unfortunately, after a week we became sick with tummy bugs for a couple of days, which dampened our keenness to be adventurous with street food.


Chai stalls

Basic food stalls

Chapati makers

Being in a big city definitely has its advantages with train booking, as we found out when we visited the Howrah railway station and saw the huge line for the general population for booking a train ticket, then discovered the Foreigner’s Booking Office across the river, where an air-con refuge of quiet, empty calm saw us wait for 5 minutes on comfy (yet tatty) sofas, then book an onward ticket to our next destination at a desk with an English-speaking clerk. So easy!


Howrah Bridge

Under Howrah Bridge


A unique sight in India (particularly in Calcutta) is the Hindustan Ambassador car. This is a car made under the name of Morris Oxford in Britain during the 1950s, and for whatever reason was stopped being made there and transferred to India. They have been making this model here since1958, with no changes. So, although it’s originally British, it’s now considered the definitive Indian car. We love them- many are used as taxi and government cars, but there are a few independent ones rattling around in various colours.



A particularly nice color (excuse the squashed rat on the road!)

Most are used as taxis


Because we lost a few days to sickness, we didn’t see everything we planned to- even in our 12 days. But we loved our time here, now have a good excuse to come back again someday and see the rest!


Street corner, Calcutta

Scaffolding worker

Flower market under Howrah bridge

Street scene, Calcutta



Saturday, 14 September 2013

YONI MASSAGE, ANYONE?- Relaxation and preparation in Ko Phangan/Bangkok



Our month or so “recovery” in our little hut right on Sritanu Beach on Ko Phangan (east coast Thailand) did us the world of good, and when our sleep patterns returned to normal and the stress dreams/nightmares about hostel bookings ended, we relaxed as much as two people can, and let ourselves feel OK about doing nothing for a while.

By the way, anyone looking for a cheap, easy beach place to unwind over the June/July/Aug in Thailand (when the west coast weather can be horrid), Sritanu Beach has many bungalows for less than 200 Baht a night, a wide range of cheap places to eat, and quite a chilled atmosphere .



"Our" view

Unwinding

Relaxed at last!

Any more relaxed and he would fall out!

Our bungalow

View from bungalow-right on the beach



Sritanu Beach seems to have become one of those places that attract serious yoga types, more than travellers, and we were practically the only people at our bungalows not involved in yoga in some way. The tantric yoga class sounded intriguing, what with the "yoni massages" and the like, but at 300 Euros for four days, well out of our budget! A very chilled out and relaxed vibe surrounded the place, with most people out most of the day at classes and gone to bed early!!



Morning view of one of the neighbours

Didgeridoo healings??!!

Yoga fanatics abound

More healing......

Yogic bread- why not?


The time out was also a great opportunity to slowly start some proper research about the next part of our lives- our trip to India and beyond. Our days spent reading, walking, swimming, sleeping etc flew by, and before we knew it, we were feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world again! It was time to leave and tackle the serious business of getting ourselves Indian visas in Bangkok.



Richard's shell collection

Arturo and Sandra, friends we met in Birdnest hostel, KL

Storm coming- time to get out of here!!



Last time we visited India, we simply walked into the visa office in Kuala Lumpur, filled in a form, gave them a reasonable amount of money, and went back a few days later to pick up our lovely six  months visa. Now, the KL office no longer deals with us lowly foreigners, hence our trip to Bangkok to apply from there. The process now involves planning, great organization skills, huge amounts of money (especially from the evil British passport holders), and a great deal of patience. We won't bore you with the details, but let's just say, when we realized the box marked "visible identification marks" had to be filled in, we knew we were in trouble! We are glad we put aside two weeks for the ridiculous procedure, although it is no hardship to be in and around Bangkok for a longer period of time.


What we needed for our Indian visa in Bangkok!



We were surprised to realize our last time in Bangkok was February 2011- KL really seems to have become our base for the last few years, thanks to Air Asia. We were lucky enough, this time, to be able to spend some time with my sister Jo, and her wifey, G, in their gorgeous highrise apartment, which was a bit of a change from our first week in Bangkok in a cheap hostel. We were quite happy with our room in Banglampu (the backpacker's area in Bangkok) until we saw our stunning new room at Jo and G's place!!


Our guest house room.......


Our room at Jo and G's place


Jo and G's luxurious apartment in Bangkok

Apart from obtaining our Indian visas, there seemed no end to the small last minute jobs we needed to fulfill before leaving South-East Asia for what could be up to one year. We visited  Pantip Mall, the computer/tech centre in Bangkok for the first time, and found it quite inferior to the similar Low Yat Mall in KL. However, the amazing Chatuchak market was as varied and original as always, and we spent the best part of a Sunday there, wandering part of the 27 acres, and browsing a fraction of the15,000 stalls. And, as we do every time we visit Bangkok, we loved using the public ferries up and down the Chao Phraya River to get around. For 15 baht (50 cents) to travel right to the end of the line, and watch the changes along the river, it's still one of the best bargains in Bangkok.



Food stall at Chatuchak Market, Bangkok



Being interviewed by students in a Bangkok park



 View of BTS train


What a view!!



Once all our jobs in Bangkok were done, we were left looking forward to the coming trip, and the adventures we will surely have........ 


Us in the park, Banglampu, Bangkok