6 rules that make you a better Traveller!

A traveller friend of mine, Doulos (@deejTHtraveller on twitter) very recently tweeted this to me,

to think about it, I have never encountered boundaries on my travels save check posts. (But) Every 50 km is different!

I couldn’t agree with him more, especially in the context of a country like India, a country where almost 800 languages are spoken (even MS Word finds that amazing I guess cause it just suggested that I change the phrase to ‘Countries where almost…’!), many different religions are followed with equal fervour and cultural nuances differ with every new region you explore.

As of now, I have only been fortunate enough to visit only two other countries, Thailand and Cambodia and though these were very different experiences as compared to the ones I’ve had exploring India, some things remain common. There are a few things that every traveller must remember when visiting a new destination or meeting new people. These might at times feel strange or even ridiculous but the fact that these hold great importance to your hosts (and remember, wherever your travel takes you, you are the guest!) and that they have been following it for generations probably might make you want to take that smirk off your face. An open mind and a respectful demeanour have been known to open many doors for many a traveller.

Here are six rules that may help you become a more appreciated guest on your travels.

– IF YOU HAVE TO GOOGLE BEFORE YOUR VISIT, DO IT FOR THE RIGHT REASONS.

Most people have the habit of trying to find out about places to stay, where to eat, things to do and every other possible detail that might make their trip more ‘comfortable’. While, to some, it might be comforting to have all those details, attention to some other details will most definitely make your hosts more comfortable. That I can assure is a sure shot way of making your trip more enjoyable. Some of these things might feature in the points that follow.

– DRESS APPROPRIATELY.

This is absolutely basically very important and is applicable to both men and women. Not every hot place in the world is a beach and not every settlement along a coast line appreciates people strolling around their neighbourhood in beach wear. Certain communities, especially when you visit places that hold religious significance to them, expect a certain dress code from every one and that includes you. So whether you are at a beach destination or anywhere else, it helps to check what is acceptable and what is not to the locals and you will easily find this information on the net or from fellow travellers who might have explored the region previously.

Tourists dressed inappropriately in India

Inappropriate attire might not be appreciated by locals. Photo courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald 

– LEARN A BIT OF THE LOCAL LANGUAGE.

It is a given that a small greeting like a ‘Hello’ in the local language uttered by a traveller will bring a smile to the most hostile of locals. Add a smile to that greeting and you might have got yourself a friend for life. If you can, try to get the pronunciation right too but even if you manage it in a funny manner and got greeted back with a hearty laugh, you would have succeeded in breaking the ice. For those of you who are good at learning new languages, go ahead and surprise your hosts with a conversation in the local language and you will see a whole new level of generosity.

Hello in different languages

Hello in different languages!

– BE OPEN TO TRYING DIFFERENT FOOD.

I understand this might be difficult for vegetarians or those with little or no experience of being adventurous with their food choices but adhering to this will help. The best food that you will find on your travels will most probably be served in the homes of the locals. If you really must refuse the generosity of your hosts, do it politely and in this case, a little local language might help to explain the reason for your refusal. Remember, in many cultures, refusing food offered to you might be considered to be an insult to the host.

Food stall selling preserved meats in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Food stall selling preserved meats in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

– NOT EVERY PERSON WHO LOOKS ‘NEEDY’ IS LOOKING FOR YOUR MONEY.

Have you ever been at a place where every now and then during your visit you encountered either a local or a settlement that filled you with extreme sorrow or sympathy at the conditions that prevailed. Well, other than a select few, most travelers can be generally put into two categories, the super benevolent ones or the always suspicious ones. The right way is probably where those other select few choose to dwell. I belong to a country where coming face to face with the harsh inequalities of the modern world isn’t that difficult and trust me, not all the people in need are looking to you for money and neither are all of them trying to con you. A lot of these people would be happier if you could spare a little time and probably share a meal or even a hot cup of coffee with them. The money that you give them might help, but making them feel equal and cared for will make it special.

– REMEMBER, YOU ARE THE GUEST.

Humbleness and an affable disposition are precious characteristics when you travel. Whether it is a destination within your own country or a foreign land, you are the visitor. Your hosts, especially in rural lands, will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and all they ask for in return is a little courtesy and respect. Locals around the world let people be a part of their lives and that’s what makes travel such a great experience, so be thankful. It might be great to take souvenirs back with you, but giving a gift (however small it may be) will mean the world to the people who so generously accepted you with open arms. Travel becomes an experience to cherish when it has the right mix of give and take.

“One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Never forget this. People around the world would welcome travellers if each and every one of us followed these rules. SET THE RIGHT PRECEDENT.

Night Markets of Siem Reap, Cambodia

After having spent a slightly exhausting day aboard a boat exploring the Tonle Sap and the floating village it supports, the prospect of spending the second half of the day exploring the exciting night life of Siem Reap seemed a little demanding. But this was our first visit to the city and we couldn’t have missed being a part of the night madness that grips this serene-by-the-day destination.

We’d checked ourselves into the Soria Moria Boutique hotel (thesoriamoria.com) which was an obvious choice being an employee-owned hotel with serious interest in promoting sustainable tourism. This may not have been the most economical choice or the even the best hotel (in terms of comfort) to stay at, but the cheerful staff and the great service added to the satisfaction of knowing that we were doing our bit by giving back to the local community in a small way. The Soria Moria is most definitely a highly recommended place to stay when visiting Siem Reap.

The walk from the hotel to the night market took us about 10 minutes and the weariness was wiped out the moment we passed a compound, the fence of which had the lyrics of the famous John Lennon number ‘Imagine’. We knew we were in the right place and that the evening would not be a disappointment for sure!

John Lennon's song 'Imagine' pops up like a pleasant surprise on a street side in Siem Reap.

The Siem Reap night markets and Pub Street were a massive attack on the senses. A multitude of stalls selling thousands of eclectic souvenirs, foot massage stalls with smiling masseuses promising the best massages in the world, drug peddlers appearing from the shadows trying to identify prospective customers, scantily clad prostitutes gesturing at tourists provocatively, food stalls & restaurants filling the air with mesmerizing smells, theme-based restaurants advertising the Apsara dance performances that are ever-so-popular and people from across the world living in the moment having a great time jumping in and out of the many pubs that come alive with the sounds of loud music and constant chatter. Life, past sun down, in Siem Reap couldn’t have been more contradicting when compared to the serene and at times depressing scenes witnessed during the day.

The experience of an evening spent amidst this exhilarating madness needs to be felt to be believed. The impact probably gets exaggerated by the fact that the other popular attractions of Siem Reap, like the Tonle Sap and the Angkor temple complex, mostly evoke a sense of tranquility.

A piece of advice though for travellers looking to pick up souvenirs here, the prices here are much higher than in Bangkok and a lot of the products that you see here are cheap counterfeits (probably bought from the markets in Bangkok!) . If you are travelling on a budget then the best way to experience the night life here is to browse through the souvenir stalls without buying much and eating food from the street side stalls that sell some great tasting delicacies at affordable prices. Beer is cheap in Siem Reap and one can get a pint of local ‘Angkor’ beer for 50 cents. One of the messages painted on a restaurant wall on Pub Street announced proudly “Promoting irresponsible drinking since 1998”. I guess there is no reason to stay sober in Siem Reap!

Here are a few snapshots from an evening spent exploring the crazy night life of this fantastic city.

Entrance to the Art Center Night Market in Siem Reap

Floating Paper Lanterns make for a beautiful sight

Fantastic spices on sale at the Siem Reap night market

A little girl enjoying her cold drink at the Siem Reap night market

Entrance to another night market in Siem Reap

Alleys lined with souvenir stalls inside a night market in Siem Reap

Local Khmer man creating souvenirs in one of the stalls at the night market in Siem Reap

Westerner playing the didgeridoo at the entrance of Pub Street

Inside one of the many restaurants advertising the Apsara dance performances

An apsara dancer performing at a restaurant on Pub Street in Siem Reap

Sign seen painted on a graffiti wall at a restaurant on Pub Street in Siem Reap

 

 

 

 

10 Travel, Nature and Adventure Videos That Inspire!

Life in the city and the fight to make enough to feed my travel fetish often leaves me with little time to actually travel. I do still manage to get my regular dose of wanderlust. But then to negate the absence of travel, when stuck in the city, and to make sure that I never run out of inspiration to travel, I choose to spend time with friends who foster similar passions. But one other thing that has never failed to boost my craving for travel has been the internet and its unending supply of fascinating videos created by travellers and adventure junkies around the world.

As one of the founding volunteers and a moderator of the Travellers Meet community facebook page, I have been constantly on the look out for these awe-inspiring videos to share with the members of the community. Having explored and experienced not less than a few hundred travel and adventure related videos, I am listing the top 10 here (in no particular order) for the benefit of everyone who is looking for the slightest of nudges to get up and go out there to explore!

  • I Believe I Can Fly (Flight of the Frenchies) – Trailer
  • Nikon – WHY
  • Afghanistan – touch down in flight
  • What is Mountainbiking about?
  • The North Face Brand Manifesto
  • STAND – a SUP adventure through the Great Bear Rainforest
  • Growing is Forever
  • Life.Nature.You
  • Pierre Lelievre & Anthony Finocchiaro’ in India
  • A Story for Tomorrow

Hope these videos do for you what they have done for me. If you have a video that you think might inspire me and others, do share it.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

6 Hotels from Thailand and Cambodia… A Review.

Before embarking on my first international trip to Thailand and Cambodia in September earlier this year, I spent a lot of time analyzing hotel reviews on online platforms like Agoda and Tripadvisor. After all the effort and time spent, I’d safely assumed that my stay during the two week journey was well taken care of. Now, after having returned from the journey, I feel compelled to write this post as I am slightly disillusioned by these review platforms and believe that an honest review might help other travellers plan their stays in these two countries better.

A friend of mine and I stayed in 6 hotels during our trip and was spread over 3 cities which included Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I will now move onto my reviews about each of these hotels and a comment between what the trusted online review platforms suggested. Each review will consist of four factors, Location, Quality of Accommodation, Staff and Service and Food end with a suggestion that I think might help you decide on whether to opt for the hotel or not.

  1. Aphrodite Inn, Bangkok, Thailand
    Address: 61-65 Rachadamri Road, Pathumwan, Siam
    Agoda Review: 8.4 FantasticReview of Location: The hotel scores really high marks on the location factor for shopping enthusiasts being located in the middle of the shopping district. Shopping destinations like the Central World mall, Siam Square, Siam Paragon and Platinum Fashion Mall are all at an easy walking distance from the hotel.Review of Quality of Accommodation: The hotel lobby and reception area are small but welcoming and that’s the way we prefer it. The rooms were cosy and very clean with all our basic needs catered to. The bathroom was extremely clean and we had hot water whenever we needed it. Our stay was comfortable and did not give us any reason to complain.

    Review of Staff and Service: The staff was mostly very polite and eager to assist whenever we needed help or suggestions. They even helped us cancel our hotel booking at Chiang Rai when heavy rain and a damaged railway track played spoil sport and made us change our plan. One aspect of this hotel that was exceptionally pleasing was the promptness of room service when we asked for it.

    Review of the Food: The breakfast at the hotel was simple and good. Satisfying for sure, but not exceptional. A definite suggestion would be to be bolder and try the innumerable food options available around the hotel.

    Suggestion: A good place to stay at for a reasonable price. Offers good value for money but the food isn’t anything to write home about. The receptionist multi-tasks occasionally and so you might find her missing at times!

    Personal Rating: 8.0 Very Good

     

  2. Smart Suites, Bangkok, Thailand
    Address: 43/17 Sukhumvit 11Agoda Review: 7.2 GoodReview of Location: Once again, this hotel too scores decently on the location factor. At a convenient distance from shopping areas and watering holes, the hotel becomes very attractive considering the fact that the Nana sky train station is located close by. Sukhumvit is one of the liveliest parts of Bangkok and Smart Suites hotel lets you live right in the middle of all the action.

    Review of Quality of Accommodation: One word that would rightly describe this would be, Disappointing! The hotel lobby and reception area were crowded with furniture and hotel staff lazing around. The elevator was out of order and so we had to lug our backpacks to our room on the 2nd floor. The room was very ordinary to put it mildly and the bathroom had tacky fittings and sporadic hot water supply. The frosted glass door to the bathroom that could not be latched only made things worse.

    Review of Staff and Service: The staff here could not be blamed as when compared to the mediocre state of the hotel itself, they shone. The reception was manned by a very friendly receptionist who made things look a little better. We only stayed here for one night and so there wasn’t much to be said about the staff.

    Review of the Food: The hotel has a coffee shop but we avoided it as the location of the hotel allowed us to opt for food options that were most definitely better.

    Suggestion: Stay at Smart Suites only if you are desperate to stay in Sukhumvit and do not have other options. The rooms here are avoidable and score low on the value-for-money factor.

    Personal Rating: 6.0 Average

     

  3. Villa Langka Boutique Hotel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    Address: 14, St 282, Beung Keng Kang,Agoda Review: 8.4 FantasticReview of Location: If you are a traveller looking for a beautiful hotel in a quiet, secluded part of Phnom Penh, look no further.

    Review of Quality of Accommodation: This was one of the hotels that we thought had received the most accurate reviews on most online review platforms. The hotel lobby was beautiful and the pool-side restaurant was all that we had hoped for. The contemporary design of the room interiors and the very comfortable beds only added to the feel-good factor. The bathroom was large and exceptionally clean. Though we stayed here for only one night, I would definitely recommend this hotel to every traveller.

    Review of Staff and Service: The staff at Villa Langka were very friendly and genuinely helpful. They made sure that our short stay was comfortable and we had no complains. We experienced Khmer hospitality at its best here.

    Review of the Food: The food at the restaurant was delicious and well presented. The service at the restaurant kept us smiling and asking for more. We had to leave the hotel at 7 am and as promised, a well planned and complete breakfast buffet had been laid out for us at 6 am.

    Suggestion: Villa Langka most definitely promises a comfortable stay in a beautiful boutique hotel and does not disappoint. Guests here are assured of a memorable and leisurely time.

    Personal Rating: 8.5 Fantastic

     

  4. Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia
    Address: Wat Bo Road, Siem Reap Central AreaAgoda Review: 9.0 FantasticReview of Location: Located in a quiet part of Siem Reap, this hotel is perfectly placed to give you the peace and quiet of a boutique hotel and yet keeps you well within walking distance of all the action that Siem Reap’s night life has to offer. We almost always chose to walk when in Siem Reap and this hotel made it very convenient.

    Review of Quality of Accommodation: The hotel lobby is large and well equipped. There is a lot to read and do in this area and it also exhibits literature about the charitable and responsible nature of the establishment. The decently large rooms here may not be very plush but were comfortable and warm. Everything that we could have needed to make our stay comfortable was available in the room and the bathroom was decent too. The fact that the hotel was involved in working towards improving the condition of local life made us feel much better during our stay here.

    Review of Staff and Service: Soria Moria is an employee-owned socially-driven hotel and to achieve gender equality, females hold more than half of the managerial and supervising positions. The hotel staff was congenial and always ready to help. The service at this hotel was by far the best that we experienced during our trip.

    Review of the Food: The food at the Fusion Kitchen, the hotel’s restaurant was great and this was where we got our first chance to sample authentic Khmer cuisine. The friendly staff at the restaurant made the experience better by giving us suggestions on what to taste and the food did not disappoint us.

    Suggestion: If you believe in responsible travel and would like to support local communities when staying in Siem Reap, Soria Moria is the best option to take. Soria Moria recently won the ‘Best in Community Engagement and Development’ award at the Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Awards 2012.

    Personal Rating: 9.0 Fantastic

    The fantastic staff at the community-owned Soria Moria Boutique Hotel. Photo Courtesy: www.thesoriamoria.com

    The fantastic staff at the community-owned       Soria Moria Boutique Hotel. Photo Courtesy: http://www.thesoriamoria.com

  5. S2S Boutique Resort, Bangkok
    Address: 21/1 Soi Ratchatapan or Soi Mo Leang (Old), Makasan, Ratchaprarop Road, PratunamAgoda Review: 6.8 PleasantReview of Location: It took us some time to find this hotel and we thought that the location was particularly desolate. Stay at this hotel only if you don’t mind walking a bit before you get anywhere and for a solo female traveller, this is a definite must-avoid.

    Review of Quality of Accommodation: We had booked this hotel for the last two nights of our trip as we were running short of money and were okay with compromising and staying at a basic hotel. This hotel honestly is an example of the lowest standards that a hotel can ever fall to. The rooms were dark, dingy and smelt of mould. The bathroom was dirty and we chose not to use it at all. The AC wasn’t functioning and the bed linen was filthy and stained. There wasn’t a single thing about the room that we thought was tolerable!

    Review of Staff and Service: The staff at S2S reflected the hotels condition. They provided no assistance and neither did they bother to be friendly or welcoming. Our complaints were ignored and they did not offer a refund even when we chose to leave the hotel after one night’s stay even though we had paid for two nights.

    Review of the Food: This bit isn’t even worth reviewing.

    Suggestion: The S2S calls itself a ‘boutique resort’ and if there was ever a lie, THAT WAS IT!  Stay miles away from this horrendous hotel!

    Personal Rating: 0.0 Disgusting

     

  6. Arnoma Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand
    Address: 99 Rachadamri Road, Pathumwan, SiamAgoda Review: 7.8 Very GoodReview of Location: Location-wise, it doesn’t get any better than this. Arnoma Hotel is located adjacent to the Big C mall and opposite the very popular Central World mall. If shopping is what you are looking for, this is one of the best options that you will have.

    Review of Quality of Accommodation: This was by far the most expensive hotel option that we had chosen during the trip and for the cost, the hotel came pretty close to being satisfactory. The only reason for us to choose this hotel was that we had been desperate to move out of the appalling S2S Boutique Resort Hotel and we were desperate to spend our last night in affordable comfort! The lobby and the reception of the Arnoma are like any other big hotel grand and somewhat intimidating (personal opinion!). The room was large and the beds extra-bouncy and comfortable. The bathroom was a bit of a let-down but not that bad. On the whole, this was a good way to end our time in Bangkok.

    Review of Staff and Service: Three words to describe the staff, polite, friendly and helpful.

    Review of the Food: We did not have the courage to walk into the hotels famed restaurants and chose to sample the very-tempting street food for the last time before we left the country. As far as the reviews go, the restaurants at the Arnoma do serve some lip-smacking food.

    Suggestion: If you have the money to spend, this might be an option to look at. My suggestion, there are many good hotels available at much better rates than the Arnoma and if you do intend to splurge, then don’t feel shy, stay at the Amari!

    Personal Rating: 7.5 Good

To sum it up, all these hotels, some great and some terrible, made my trip a memorable one. I would most-definitely suggest that it would be best for every traveller to make their own mistakes and learn from each one of them. If you did wish to find some help with planning your trip to these two amazing countries, these reviews might help a bit.

Hope this post helps you when you plan your trip to Thailand or Cambodia. This was completely based on personal experience and there may be others who have experienced these in a different light. If you do have a different opinion on one or all of these reviews, please do comment here.

10 Simple Rules to make your time in India better!

Over the years, being an Indian and travelling within India has taught me a few lessons and remembering these every time I travel now helps me make the whole experience less daunting and more enjoyable. Here’s a list that should help you sail through Incredible India!

1) An honest smile can take you places…

Time and again, you might find the going tough when in India and a frown would seem to be the most apt expression at the time, but then that never made things better. Indians love to smile and see smiling faces. A smile can definitely build bridges and you will generally see things getting better when you arm yourself with a smile. We take great pride in our hospitality and most Indians would go out of their way to help you keep that smile on!

Photo credit: Vaibhav Mehta Photography

Photo credit: Vaibhav Mehta Photography (www.vaibhavmehta.com)

2) Use public transport smartly, it’s really inexpensive…

There are plenty of chances of getting conned when you try hiring an auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) or a cab in most Indian cities. A majority of Indians manage to commute within the city in less than a 100 bucks (2$) a day. Try finding out more about the local city bus service or the metro rail service as these always have plans that will let you take multiple rides at a very reasonable one time charge.

50 Rupee bus pass valid for one day in Bangalore.

50 Rupee bus pass valid for one day in Bangalore.

3) If you use public transport, use point number 1 and a hand sanitizer…

Public transport is definitely the cheapest option for commuting but remember, India is a country of more than a billion people and so it’s quite probable that the public transport options might be crowded. Be patient, carry a smile and some hand sanitizer… you’ll do just fine!

Inside a city bus in Bangalore.

Inside a city bus in Bangalore.

4) You can’t change the system, so work with it…

There’s no running away from it, corruption is rife in India and you probably will experience it during your stay here. The obvious choice would be to avoid encouraging corruption and to try and use point one to get your work done, but that might be easier said than done. At times, it’ll save you a lot of time and probably some money too if you do decide to ignore the moral dilemma and grease a palm or two. In instances where the demanded amount is not too high, we Indians try to look at the need behind the greed! It might just make you feel a little less sorry about the whole issue…

A traffic cop at work in Bangalore. There are many honest people in public services, you just have to be lucky to find them!

A traffic cop at work in Bangalore. There are many honest people in public services, you just have to be lucky to find them!

5) Use sign language to communicate if necessary, Indians are champions at dumb charades…

India is a land of more than 800 languages and even Indians end up have trouble communicating with each other once they leave known territory. That’s exactly when a few smart gestures and a sideways shake of the head come to the rescue. Keep the sign language simple and it’ll work wonders. For example, if you are looking for some place that serves food, just gesture with your hand as if you were eating an imaginary morsel of food with your right hand. You will be promptly offered food or will be directed to the closest restaurant!

Indians could easily be world champions at dumb charades!

Photo Credit: Vaibhav Mehta Photography (www.vaibhavmehta.com)

Photo Credit: Vaibhav Mehta Photography (www.vaibhavmehta.com)

6) The ‘Bazaar’ is where life happens in India…

Almost every city in India is dotted with kitschy stores that advertise the ‘Taj Mahalesque’ India. Stay away from them! Indian markets or bazaars are an experience unlike any other. The best deals on the most authentic Indian souvenirs are in these markets and the sensory overload that they promise are an added bonus for every foreign traveller.

7) Indian cooking is much more than chillies and ‘garam masala’…

India is a land of spices and not all Indian food will leave you with tears and a running nose! When ordering an Indian dish, try not to give in to the urge to whisper to the waiter to keep it ‘less-spicy’. Instead, try to sample a small helping of the original dish first and then if needed, request for a change that would retain the authentic taste to the maximum possible extent. Would it not be strange to order hot sauce that wasn’t hot!

Photo credit: Saina Jayapal

Photo credit: Saina Jayapal

8) Food always tastes the best at small roadside eateries…

Glitzy ‘India-themed’ restaurants serve lip-smacking food and we’re not debating that here but let’s not take anything away from the humble street side eatery which caters to hundreds of hungry locals every day. Some of the best food that you could taste in India is served by these stalls and most locals would vouch for that. You might be worried about the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’ and if you have a history of a weak palate, you may stick to the fancy restaurants. But then if you see an eatery with a crowd of locals around it, it’s probably safe for you too!

Photo credit: Jalpa Trivedi Shah

Photo credit: Jalpa Trivedi Shah

9) Make a local friend…

Every Indian knows everything that I’ve told you here and so it would not do much harm to make one a friend! All you probably need to do is to make it clear that you want to experience the India that he lives and breathes every day. Indians love entertaining guests and it won’t be tough to find someone eager to show you the real India.

Photo Credit: Vaibhav Mehta Photography

Photo Credit: Vaibhav Mehta Photography (www.vaibhavmehta.com)

10) The real India is waiting to be explored…

India is a country much larger than the words and symbols that are generally used to describe it. The larger-than-life Taj Mahal, the majestic tiger and the towering Himalayas are magnificent ‘must-see’ icons of this magical country but you may also want to explore the India that lives within the narrow lanes of Old Delhi or at the Friday market in Vadodara or even at the dhabas that dot the highways that connect the many fascinating towns and villages.