How often do we travel to a country and hear stories about the remarkable beauty of the neighbouring country?

We felt the same on our maiden ladies-only holiday to Croatia – it was quite a success. But once there, Slovenia, the charming neighbour, lured us. This led us to plan a perfect route that takes you to both Croatia and Slovenia.

So if Croatia and Slovenia, have been a favourite European destination that you want to visit for its beauty, historic sites and affordability, we give you more reasons why you should do it right now!

Here, we give you six reasons to pack your bag and get ready on our Ladies only Holidays to Croatia and Slovenia!


ladies only holidays india

If you’re a fan of many fine sights, plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars, Zagreb will not disappoint you. And if you’re someone who enjoys art and history, the capital has the most number of museums that will keep you occupied for the day.
Also, if you want your wishes to be fulfilled, toss a coin into the Mandusevac fountain.
Don’t forget to take a picture and tag us #Wonderfulworld


ladies only holidays india

Looking to live in the greenest and liveable city?
Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana lets you walk through the historical city centre and visit the 900-year-old castle. Besides, you can take a trip to the emerald-green Lake Bled, and feel the gushing waters of Vintgar Gorge.
Take a unique train ride inside Europe’s largest show cave in Postojna and walk up to the world’s largest cave castle at Predjama.

Yes, all this with our Croatia and Slovenia Trip
Need we say more?


ladies only holidays india

Good things come in small packages! That’s what we feel when it comes to the stunning small city, Rovinj. Bordered on three sides by the Adriatic Sea, on your visit here, you can seek out ancient ruins, visit unfrequented beaches and breathtaking natural spaces like the 10 kilometre-long Lim Fjord.



ladies only holidays india

One of the world’s great natural wonder Plitvice Lakes in Croatia is a lush and pristine valley with 16 dazzling terraced lakes, 90 waterfalls and several kilometres of the boardwalk. With us, you will be spending the day hiking through the forests of this UNESCO World Heritage site.
So are you ready?


Once done hiking, we then visit a town protected by UNESCO, Split.  Here, we stroll through the alleys of Split, stop for a drink at the many bars in the old town and soak in the past Roman glory.
But that’s not it!

We also take a thrilling speedboat ride to explore some of the most beautiful Adriatic islands – Biševo with its Blue Cave, Vis, Budikovac, and the beautiful island town of Hvar.


If you are looking to seek paradise on Earth, head to the enchanted city of Dubrovnik. The old stone buildings and limestone streets surrounded by well-preserved defensive walls of the old city are pretty impressive.

So if you have been a die-hard fan of Game of Thrones, book your trip now and don’t forget to enjoy the red wine, beautiful architecture and works of art on this ladies-only holiday.

Have a look at more ladies-only holidays by clicking here.


packing list

Planning to set out on an adventure and worried that you might leave something behind? Whether you’re a frequent traveler or a first-time adventurer, it’s always good to plan your packing. What is better than having a packing list?

Pack too much and you end up being disorganized. Pack conservatively and there’s a high chance you might leave out something. And then you end up wasting your precious adventure time at a store on your trip! Also, you wouldn’t want to spend your travel allowance buying things that you forgot back home!

So, save yourself from this mess. We have compiled the ultimate packing list that will make it easier for you to take along all that you need. We’ve also sprinkled some packing hacks for long trips. Don’t forget to give them a try!


 1. Carry The Right Companion

Your travel companion has to be sturdy and all-purpose. Okay, we’re talking about your travel bag. You need to invest in your companion to avoid any mishaps. And what worse could happen than your belongings scattered all over the place! Plan how much you want to carry along for the trip and then decide the perfect bag for yourself.

Packing list


2. Pack According To The Weather

Would it make any sense to pack your summer essentials for a trip to Norway? Of course NOT! You would end up feeling stone cold!

Rule no. 1: Pack according to the weather of your destination.

If you’re going for ‘Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland’, getting warm clothes along with comfy gloves and boots would be a smart choice. For those packing for a trip to Cambodia, bring along your beachwear!

Here’s a useful space-saving hack for you:  Always carry clothes that can be mixed and matched. Interchangeable clothes are the best hack to empty up some space in your bags.

Another tip to free up some more space in your bags: Roll your clothes, don’t fold them!

If you’re up for a night of camping: Line your bag with a garbage bag to keep your stuff dry and far from getting damaged.


Source: USA Today 10 Best


3. Something To Munch On!

You’re on a trip and you cannot resist your hunger. Snacks come in handy at such times. Pack some munchies and candies to put off the hunger pangs that you might get when you’re out wandering.

Packing list

Source: Business travel life


4. Toiletries

First things first. Get yourself a separate bag to pack your toiletries in. Wondering why? Well, you wouldn’t want all your things to get messed up just because of one leaky shampoo bottle, right? A small bag will help you keep your things organized and it will also be convenient to carry it around.

Carrying around huge bottles of shampoos and lotions can prove troublesome. Get a few mini bottles and pour some shampoo and lotion into them, and carry them hassle-free.

Packing list

Source: Gift Market

5. Minimal Hip-Pack

Do you want to carry that backpack with essential items while you’re out exploring? How about a hands-free travel? Get a hip-pack to carry all your essential items like sunglasses, phone, and handycam.

With it, you’re all set to wander around your favorite travel destination with your hands-free!

Packing list

Source: YouTube


6. Travel Essentials/Accessories

Make a list of the essential items you’d need. Keep your travel documents handy yet safely. You’d require them throughout your journey. Keep your cash and credit cards in a hidden compartment in one of your bags.

To make your traveling fun and relaxing, a bag of travel accessories is a must! Stuff your bag with all the accessories you’d need while traveling and make it easily accessible.

An inflatable pillow always comes in handy while traveling. It takes less space and serves its purpose!

Make sure you pack all the gadgets you’d need for the trip. Also, don’t forget to pack the chargers along with a universal adapter! Preferably, make a separate compartment for these gadgets to avoid any spillage over them.

Carry your earplugs to cancel out the unwanted noise of your surroundings while traveling. And a book or a magazine will surely act as your travel companion.

Once you land at your destination, you’d need the maps, the travel guides, and the language guides. Carry them in a handy bag so that you don’t need to search for them later.

Packing list

Source: Pinterest


7. Skincare Essentials

Women love to take care of their skin. Also, skincare is the most neglected part while traveling. Keeping this in mind, we have kept skincare essentials on our packing list.

Pack your skincare essentials as per your travel destination. If you’re planning to visit a cold destination, make sure you carry cold creams, moisturizers, and chapsticks.

Wherein traveling to hot destinations, don’t forget to pack the sunscreen lotion and avoid carrying too much makeup products.

Another space-saving hack: Use paper makeup to avoid carrying all your makeup stuff!

Packing list

Source: Dayna Marie


8. Medical Kit

The most essential item in your ultimate packing list is the medical kit! You never know when you’d need it. Carry some fever relievers in case you don’t adjust to the weather change.

Carry some bandages and antiseptic cream in your first-aid kit for any accidental cuts. Also, keep your allergy medicines handy (if you have any) so that you have an uninterrupted trip.

Taking care of your health during any trip must be your priority. Few precautions and you’re good to go on your trip!

Packing list

Source: Mercado Libre

There you have it! The ultimate packing list of essential items you need for your trip! We have left no chance for you to forget anything back.

A bonus tip: Don’t forget to leave some significant space in your bags for the shopping that you’ll bring back home!

Also, check out some amazing trips we’ve arranged for the free-spirited women here.


Ladies Tours and Travels

Backpacking to Korea?

Well then, you have gifted yourself a whole new treat!

Calling Korea as the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ will be unfair as it’s nowhere close to being calm! The dazzling city lights and the serene beaches in Korea will give you an experience of living in a concrete jungle yet close to nature.

We are sure you’ll be wondering next what all things to do and see in Korea, what to skip and most importantly, what are the things to see in Korea?

Keep that question mark at bay. Get a pen and a notepad and scribble down the things to do and see in Korea!

Below is the list of the things to do and see in Korea.


1.  Futuristic Seoul

Haven’t you always wished to time travel? Yes, you heard it right!
Time travel is pretty possible when it comes to Korea! The sky touching towers and the twinkling city lights will fill your eyes with awe.  Seoul is a heaven for the tech-savvies and has so much to offer to the world of technology. Find yourself a step ahead in the world at Seoul.

Wander around the streets of Seoul to take in all that the city has to offer you. Seoul offers you one of the most happening night-life in the world! So, make sure you hit the dance floor!

Don’t forget to treat your taste buds. You cannot miss out on the famous Korean cuisine, the Bibimbap that has sauteed roots with marinated beef served with a bowl of rice. So, Seoul ranks first on our list of ‘Things you must do and see in Korea’!

things to do and see in Korea

2.  Mystical Gyeongju

Korea is a home to two widely different eras! The first is the modern era that you will experience in Seoul and the other one is in Gyeongju.

This city is home to many tombs, temples, pagodas and the Buddhist statuary than any other place in Korea.

Gyeongju has a National Museum despite the city being a museum on its own! The beautiful architectural structures and the Buddhist statuaries are the reasons the city looks like a museum.

things to do and see in Korea

3.  A Stop at Busan

Following Seoul, Busan is the second largest city in Korea that has a string of interesting things to offer you. From beautiful towers to finger-licking seafood cuisine, you get all you need at one stop!

Look out for houses built in a staircase-fashion and painted with vibrant colors in the Gamcheon village that also has a rich history.

You will find a cultural mix of modern and traditional structures, making you wonder what era you’re in!

things to do and see in Korea

4.  Volcanic Landscapes

Ever wondered what it might be like to be near a real volcano? No, we’re not saying a live volcano!

But Korea offers you its sweet little volcanic island- The Jeju Island. Set out on a journey to explore this serene island.

Jeju will surely build up your curiosity to wander around the alluring Island. And last but not the least, the island is crowned with a Crater-lake which is a cherry on the cake!

things to do and see in Korea

5.  Walk in the Lava tubes

The lava tubes are as fascinating as the glassy lava! And where once the hot lava flowed now has a temperature ranging from 12 to 15 degree Celsius.

Jeju Island has a lot to offer, so start by taking a walk through the nature-made tube? And the beautiful lava follow-lines and the stalactites won’t fail to amaze you.

Admire the ropy lava floor which was once a real fuming lava! These lava tubes are open for tourists till a distance of one kilometer, making it safe for you to wander.things to do and see in Korea

6.  Witness the Demilitarized Zone between North & South Korea

Pay a visit to the most controversial tourist spot, the Demilitarized Zone of Korea. The Korean War created a division between the south and the north parts of Korea.

This is the closest you can get to North Korea while you’re visiting South Korea! Take all the pictures you can of North Korea while you’re on the bus ride.

This zone is one of the last borders remaining after the Cold war. And the best part is that it is absolutely safe for you to visit!

things to do and see in Korea

7.  A night in a Hanok

A trip to Korea is incomplete without you getting a taste of the ancient Korean tradition. The best way to live the traditional Korean life is to ditch the hotel for a day and live in a Hanok! Koreans have been living in the traditional Hanok for over 100 years.

The Hanoks are as warm as the hearts of the locals. Get yourself closer to Korea!

things to do and see in Korea

Source: Travel Diary

8.  Live the Temple Life

Visiting Korea and not being at the core of Korea would be unfair, no? Buddhism has spread its roots in Korea over a thousand years ago.

And if you’re looking for some peaceful unwinding, Bulguksa temple is your resort! While you’re at the Bulguksa temple, here are some things you must do:

  • Explore every nook and corner of the majestic temple.
  • Maybe a small tea ceremony with the monks?
  • Chant along with the Monks and find your inner peace!
  • And lastly, a meal with the Monks to end the day of your Temple Life.things to do and see in Korea


Now you’re all set to embark upon your journey and fill it with adventure. With these few tips, you can now stop worrying about your numbered days in Korea and make the most out of it. Just take the memories and leave your footprints!


Menchuka means medicinal water of snow. I am tempted to interpret it as divine land in the lap of snow. Pristine and untouched, vouched for by the lack of good roads leading to it.In fact, every stone that juts out on the path, making it an extremely bumpy drive leading to this slice of heaven, is proof that man’s greedy eyes have only just begun to settle on it.Hills, mountains, rivers, valleys, and…hold your breath, quaint and exotic wooden and bamboo bridges – you name it and you have it by the dozen. Variety of flora that you could lose count of, each more exotic than the other.
Well, what or where is this Menchuka?
It is a small valley town nestled 6000feet above sea level in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, the land touched by the first rays of the sun! For fact collectors, it is considered the last village before the McMahon Line dividing India and China. Beyond Yorlong, civilians are not allowed and the area is patrolled by the 13Kumaon Regiment. While visiting the town, it is worthwhile visiting this place and saluting the soldiers, who have traded the comfort and security of family life, for this perilous vigil so that you and I sleep in peace…
One gets to this place, first by reaching Dibrugarh in Assam, then ferrying across the mighty Brahmaputra river from BhogibeelGhat, and thence toPasighat, Arunachal Pradesh by road. The ferry experience is no ordinary one. Along with us, our SUV vehicles are also loaded on the ferry and carried across the river. Hats off to our young and incredibly brave and talented drivers!
Pasighat is the headquarters of East Siang district. Its around 150m above sea level and from here starts the ascent to Aalo or Along. The roads are bone rattlingly bumpy but the scenic beauty takes your breath away. You almost forget the physical discomfort when you feast your eyes on the ethereal surroundings.
Wild banana trees, growing in such profusion with the purple flowers that we normally see, along with orange and pink flowers which we never knew existed. Of course, there are all varieties of bamboos and pines too. And sooo many other plants and wild flowers that you could spend a lifetime studying them. Arunachal is home to the exquisite orchids and to see them casually blooming in the wild, one feels as if they are teasing you! And throughout the course, we follow the Siang River. Siang is formed by the confluence of Yomgo(China) and Siyom(Tibet). Siyom flows through Menchuka and as we drive towards Aalo from Menchuka, we see the sangam of the green Siyom and the blue Yomgo to form the Siang. Just for information, Siang is joined by Lohit and Dibang to form the Brahmaputra! So Brahmaputra enters India from Arunachal Pradesh.
The route is not exactly teeming with eating joints but the few and far between ones are located at very scenic spots. We stopped at one near an incredibly tall waterfall and had the tastiest Maggi for lunch. You get dal roti too.
The most preferred form of accommodation is Homestays in Aalo and probably the only form currently available in Menchuka.
A visit to the tribal villages in Aalo was an eye opening experience. The architecture of villages in mountains is very different from those in plains.
Levelling is of prime importance here. Hence all houses are built on stilts. Bamboo and palm leaves are the main ingredients. The huts, are basic, need based, neat, practical, and look deceptively fragile. But, these are very sturdy and have stood the test of time. No frills, no cluttering. It leads one to wonder, who taught these simple people physics, maths, and engineering that they built such scientifically sound structures? Its ironical that long long back, when there was no organized form of education as we know it today, man probably knew more about nature, .. and himself. These simple people teach you the most profound lesson that, all that there is to be known, lies within us.
Another bumpy drive takes you down to a valley and you rub your eyes and pinch yourself to believe it’s real. It is…..Menchuka…
The homestay here isGebo’s Lodge. I think that’s the best part of the trip. This living with the inmates, sitting in their kitchen, watching them go about their daily chores, while the lady of the house cooks meals, giving us an update about the latest gossip, chiding her husband, admonishing her kids….What better way to get the real feel of this place and see the lifestyle of the people?
I can still taste the thukpa(their khichri),momos(the lady taught us and we prepared them!) and butter chai(with salt)served around a fireplace with such simplicity that it at once warms the mouth and the heart.
Actually, the area south of the McMahon Line, now officially part of India, was inhabited by Tibetans. Hence, the cuisine. Rice beer brewed from rice and millet is the favourite alcoholic drink here. Customs and traditions have been developed that enable the people to adjust to nature and revere it, rather than manipulate and destroy it.
Even birds chirp and tweet contentedly and nod their deep satisfaction to belong where man and mountain are at peace with each other.
The local religion is DonyiPolo (Sun-Moon), which is heavily influenced by Hinduism, in worshipping nature and the philosophy of maintaining balance of nature. It is believed to be the land where Sage Parashurama washed away his sins and where Lord Krishna married Rukmini. Massive conversions in the mid and late 20th century by Catholic Christians has led to Christianity being a major religion here. Buddhism is also followed and Menchuka has some of the oldest monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh.
There are a few Buddhist monasteries on mountain tops, so that calls for a great trekking experience, not for the level of difficulty but for the sheer views.
One can have one’s fill of walking on wooden and bamboo bridges for there are plenty of rivers in Menchuka. A meditative experience, for one has to be totally focussed on the next step while walking on these deceptively simple contraptions. And when you are right at the center of the bridge, the way it swings, can be nerve racking!
Ultimately, the elegant magnolias, the majestic rhododendrons, and the elusive orchids of Menchuka teach you that no matter where you mark the compass of your journey, the real destination lies within.

Huddled inside a lavvu, a Sami tent, around a blazing pinewood fire, we binged on coffee and “almost homemade cake”—almostbecause Knut, our guide for the night, bought the chocolate cake with coconut and sugar dusted on top from a store and sliced it in the kitchen at his home! We learnt from him about the Sami. Historically known as Laps or Laplanders, they are the natives inhabiting, primarily, the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. They gained recognition as indigenous people in Norway following the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (ILO convention 169), and are thereby entitled special rights and protection. They herd reindeer for a living and are the only people to legally own the animal.

Sharing laughter and stories, and more cake, we awaited the appearance of Aurora on a bitterly cold January night in Kvaløya (commonly, Whale Island), an island some 30 kilometres away from Tromsø. The hands on the clock marched on. Seven to eight, nine, and then ten, still no show except a faint glimmer of hope, like a wispy cloud. Soon clouds started to drift on the vast canvas overhead. The moon peered through the cloud-blanket to greet us, a silent nod, before disappearing. The wind grew stronger, colder. As a legend goes, whistling or singing teases the Lights into appearing. Someone hummed I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night; the rest of us chimed in. Would the Elusive Aurora pay us a visit tonight?

Aurora, or polar lights, is a natural display of light near the northern and southern magnetic poles, caused when charged particles from the sun come in contact with atoms in the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere. While it is known as Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) over the Arctic, it is called Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) over the Antarctic. Up until a century ago very little was known about what caused this natural phenomenon. Ancient Chinese legends held the Lights to be a battle between gods and fire-breathing dragons. The Cree of North America considered them to be the spirits of the departed souls trying to communicate with those they left behind. In Greenland they were thought to be the souls of stillborn babies. The French considered them to be bad omen, bringing along plague, war, death, when they saw the sky turning red weeks before the French Revolution. The Estonians believed them to be horse-drawn carriages carrying heavenly guests to a celestial wedding. A myth in Finland notes how an Arctic fire fox ran so swift across the sky that its bushy tail brushed against the mountains and caused sparks that lit up the night sky (the Finnish word for the Northern Lights is revontulet, or fire fox). In Sweden, the Lights were seen as a portent of good news.

Photo courtesy: Knut of Tromsø Friluftsenter

The Sami thought them to be an ill omen and that they will come down and slice your head off, while Norse mythology held that Aurora was the glowing arch which led the fallen warriors to the final resting place in Valhalla. In modern times, author Molly Larkin has remarked: “When I look at the northern lights … I see our ancestors dancing around a sacred fire, lighting the way for us when it’s time for us to cross over from this physical world and join them.”

The Lights are stunningly beautiful but also extremely temperamental. Dependent on clear, dark skies, viewing them also rests on luck. There are various sites and apps that inform you when and where to view the Lights— being one such source—but never consider them a guarantee. It is after all a natural phenomenon. In north Europe, the Scandinavian countries are the best bet: Reykjavík and Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland; Tromsø, Lofoten Islands, Nordkapp, Kirkenes, and deep in the Norwegian Sea in Norway; Kiruna and Abisko in Sweden; Rovaniemi in Finland; as also north Greenland, Alaska, Canada. People from all over the world flock to these destinations for a glimpse of the magical skies.

A Northern Lights tour is one of the most sought-after trips on bucket lists in recent decades: many travel companies offer group as well as customised tours deep in the European winter; the best time to view the Lights. Toasting marshmallows in the fire, I heard someone recount that while on a mission to buy essentials for this adventure to Norway, a store in Chennai (a city that has never seen snow nor experienced cold nights) ran out of winter wear because a group of ninety-odd people were headed to Iceland!

A little after ten, I dragged myself out to gaze up at the sky only to find myself rushing back to the lavvu to thaw my frozen self. Even when suitably armoured with about five layers of fleece and thermals, the cold found its way in somehow. Minus twenty-seven was no joke! I was in the “middle of snow-where”—away from the city lights and “Chasing the Lights”, as the flyer read. But in reality we chase clear, dark skies—Knut corrected us while passing yet more cake to the bunch. Correct, but “chasing the lights” sounds more dreamy, wouldn’t you agree?

Eleven, the clock announced. The clouds decided to stay. We did too, unlike another group on a similar mission that proceeded towards the Finnish border. Eleven-twenty-five. Did the clouds decide to part? No. The wait seemed never-ending. Once again I found my way back around the fire, disappointed. I prepared myself for a no-show; there were three more nights yet for the chase. Deciding to call it a night, we began to pack up, retract the tripods, and pile on layers to brave the cold till we reached the bus.

Eleven-forty. “One last try,” Knut said. He checked the KP index and silently stepped out. Seconds later he screamed, “Guys, come out and see!”

Photo courtesy: Knut of Tromsø Friluftsenter

What was that?

The moon had bidden farewell and it was dark all around. The stars glimmered in the ink-black sky. Only once before have I seen such a clear, dark sky studded with so many stars—on a camping trip to Mukteshwar, situated high in the Kumaon Hills of north India. The KP index showed a 4. Good enough chance? Suddenly the sky lit up a pale green and we could see each other and around clearly. The Lights! Aurora Borealis! The snow shone, the sky danced. One long streak flashed from right to left. Another intersected it at a forty-degree angle. A sea horse galloped behind us, a reindeer’s head flashed before us, a chariot drove at a distance. Among this, a shooting star shot through a green-and-purple performance.

I squealed, I gasped. I screamed with joy, I exclaimed with awe. The others echoed the same enthusiasm. Knut photographed us, with wonder and excitement in our eyes. Jaymes Young’s song played in my head: I wanna touch the northern lights/ We could leave the world behind. I jumped but fell into the snow. Sometimes faint, sometimes stark, the imaginary formations swirled and shimmied across the sky, a symphony of colours. Then they faded away. But within minutes they picked up because I was still waiting with bated breath. I could not help but smile, brushing aside the tears of joy with the back of my chilled glove. Around twelve-thirty, we began to pack up. The Aurora danced across the sky, with her skirt in shades of green and purple sweeping across the vast expanse. Impossible to capture on film unless you are armed with a manual camera with the correct settings; nevertheless I was here to experience it.

The Lights were there to stay the night. I froze, but did not mind. I danced under the dancing Arctic sky. January 24, 2018. A date well marked in my journal. For, I will remember this as the day when the skies unfolded. As I inched towards fulfilling my long-cherished dream, the sky turned green with envy. I went with my gut and it did turn out to be one of the most memorable travel experiences.

Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights. # 1 on my bucket list even before I had a bucket list. CHECK

View of Mandalay from our hotel

Mingalaba! Hello and Welcome to Myanmar-Our local guide greeted us when we landed at the Mandalay on November 24, 2017.  We were a group of 12 women travelling with Wonderful World, led by Shibani Vig, looking forward to a week-long trip to this off beat, not so touristy destination.  As we drove to our hotel, we got a good glimpse into the last capital of Burmese royalty, which is now the second largest city in the country. As if to give us a sneak preview of what the trip had in store for us, we were taken to the top of Mandalay Hill, to the Su Taung Pyi (wish granting) Pagoda for a panoramic view of the city and the Irrawaddy river, against the setting sun.

The next day was a visit to Sagaing, an important centre for Buddhist meditation, known for a number of monasteries.  It was a unique experience at Myat Setkyar monastery, to watch the hundreds of monks in their maroon robes, silently line up as a daily ritual for their last meal of the day at 10:30 am. We imagined how it would be for young boys to learn about ascetic life as novice monks. We got to chat with a monk who had come from Arunachal Pradesh to learn more about Theravada Buddhism. After that it was a visual treat to reach the U Min Thone Sae Pagoda, where we saw 45 Buddha statues through 30 caves (doorways), all carved out of hill rock, a great place to take photographs in the niches! Other important religious places we visited were the Shwenandaw Monastery with intricate wood carving on Teak, the Kuthodaw Pagoda which is like the largest book in the world consisting of 729 shrines with stone tablets engraved with Buddhist scriptures, and the Mahamuni Buddha statue, which according to the legend was made by the Buddha himself when he was alive.  The gilded pagodas were glittering in the sunlight and we really appreciated the word Shwe in Burmese, meaning Gold.  The use of Gold leaf on the Buddha statues in the various Pagodas, and as an offering by devotees seems an important part of the Burmese religious tradition, so our planned visit to the Gold leaf workshop proved to be very useful and informative.

From Mandalay we moved on to Bagan- what a landscape.  We climbed up the narrow winding stairway at the Shwe Gu Dyi temple, built on an elevated brick structure, and we arrived at the terrace to a breath taking view of the Bagan plains- green trees and vegetation interspersed with thousands of brown religious monuments dating back to the 11th-13th century, against a blue sky, made a perfect picture. Old Bagan especially where we were staying, near the Tharabar gate, was the right place to be and just walk around on one’s own discovering old monuments at every corner.  It felt lucky to be bang in the middle of an archaeological site!  Our itinerary also included visits to other temples such as the Ananda Phaya, built with some Indian architectural influence by 8 monks who came from the Nandamula cave in India.  The unique feature of this temple was the huge Buddha statue that appears to be smiling when viewed from a distance, but appears serious up close. That was amazing. Our shopping later at the local market in Bagan was largely to buy the popular lacquerware handicrafts- the selection was very tempting.

Our next stop was at Inle Lake in the Shan state- the mountain region of Myanmar.  As we entered the Inle Lake Biosphere in our canoe styled motor boats, the expanse of the clear blue water, the azure sky, and the green mountains seemed to move along with us. The flock of sea gulls flying low, diving in and out, appeared to be teasing us to play with them- I just didn’t want the ride to end!  It was interesting to see the Intha fishermen and their unique style of paddling with one leg around one oar.  We also got a chance to visit different villages around the lake and see the cottage industries there- from lotus fibre and silk weaving, to a silversmith village and then a cheroot (cigar) making workshop.  We met the Kayan ethnic group (Padaung tribe), where the women wear bronze rings around their necks to make them slender and more beautiful.  The more the rings you wear the more prosperous you are. We also tried to imagine farming for the lake inhabitants- we saw floating farms  that were about 10 metre long and 1 meter wide, anchored by long bamboo sticks, growing cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans- all climbing plants with small roots.  The village Inn Dein was a great experience, walking through the Stupa ruins and passing by a variety of shops/stalls along the way selling souvenirs, handicrafts and art (paintings) straight from the artists!

We experienced Burmese hospitality, and cuisine- sumptuous salads like the Tea Leaf Salad, meat and vegetable dishes beyond the familiar Khao Suey.  Our hotels were extremely well located, so carefully selected. Our guides were helpful and knowledgeable. Our group was fun with an interesting mix of fitness enthusiasts, travel and history buffs, nature lovers and art connoisseurs. There was much chatting, sharing, dancing, laughing, eating and partying!

We got to see nature in its glory- the myriad of colours at sunset from a variety of locations- from the top of Mandalay hill, from the old teak U Bein bridge at Amarapura, and from our hotel at the serene Inle Lake.  And the much talked about sunrise from the elevated Shwe Gu Dyi temple, against the plains of Bagan, watching the hot air balloons as dots disappearing into the sky.

Our trip ended at Yangon- the largest city in Myanmar, but no longer the capital, where we were reminded of Delhi or Mumbai with its British style colonial buildings. We spent a nice evening at the iconic Strand Hotel. Amidst the chanting of monks, we got to see the jewel of Yangon- the Shwedagon Pagoda- considered the most sacred as it has genuine relics of Buddha.  The locals visit the “birthday corners” at the Pagoda for naming their children, based on astrology and the Burmese Zodiac signs. For example, the Tuesday corner is represented by the Lion and is influenced by the planet Mars. The Pagoda also has a Bodhi tree transplanted from India in 1926, so is special for us! A quick visit to the tomb of the Last Mughal- Bahadur Shah Zafar- reminded us of the linkages between the history of India and Burma. As I learnt more about the country opening up over the last 7 years, with over a hundred embassies now in Myanmar, I couldn’t help think that this country is a must visit!

As each of us settles back in our daily routine back home, our thoughts sometimes wander to those trip moments, getting us to scroll through the collection of photographs shared so promptly across our whatsapp group.  And definitely results in a sigh and a smile…memories to be cherished for a long time!

Jayzuba!  Thank you Shibani and Wonderful World, for such a memorable holiday in Myanmar, with such a cohesive fun group, and a well curated itinerary.  Signing off till the next trip!

Dozens of bouquet-wielding families intact with grandparents, kids, uncles, aunts, and cousins line up the narrow exit with warmth and good tidings at the Tehran Imam Khomeini international Airport. Seeing our group leader – a spirited tomboyish sturdy woman – is a welcome relief, given all the caution meted out to us – as a woman’s group travelling in Iran. An hour-long ride in balmy weather takes us into the city which is quiet early in the evening but for wide boulevards, wild roses leaping out from nowhere, and strings of festive flags along flat, yellowish chalk-coloured buildings.

As night falls, the city lights come on cheerfully and young people come out on to the streets to enjoy a meal out or just catch up. It’s a wee bit chilly, and we haven’t realised that at the foot of the Alborz mountains, the city scales up from 3000ft all the way to 8,000 feet…much higher than Mussourie, Shimla, or Nainital, familiar and popular “hill stations” back in India.

The metro station we board from the city centre is a whole different world – ceilings that are miles high, clearly demarcated coloured floor markers to board and alight. The platform is teeming with chattering masses, dutifully making their way to the first two and last two railcars if they are women, else collecting in the middle. Hustled by an endless array of salesmen and women (the lucky blokes travel through the women’s carriages) who stay just long enough to give their spiel for one station and sell everything from hairclips and underwear to tablecloths and kitchenware, it is an amusing sight. At 11,000 rials for a return ride (less than 30 cents or about INR20 – all of which we crack code on, a couple of days into the trip), the metro present across cities was safe, reassuring and very aesthetically designed, and friendlier than my maiden trips in New York or Paris even.

The next 9 days proved to be delightful…Iran is a well-kept secret never to be told or it might lose its charm. A kaleidoscope that teases the senses – of beautiful women, colourful sweet and sour food, gleaming cityscapes and town squares, gardens littered with flowers, imposing yet minutely multicoloured tiled mosques, and rivers and mountains so casually dotting the landscape. In sharp contrast were the staid very flat sand papered looking buildings – government, public and residential, as well as roads lined with boxy cars straight out of the 70s- Peugeots, Nissans and Renaults – all flat, no curves, exaggerated bonnets and trunks.

Words like “cultured” “tehzeeb”” jannat” came to mind ever so often each day as we encountered locals – cabbies, school girls, old ladies, shop keepers – no one crossed us without yelling “Hindoostan???” and when we nodded, they either broke into a jig or Bollywood song, or giggled, or practised their halting English with us, complimented us for being “women on our own trip’’ or called us beautiful, stopping for photographs and asking us to visit their homes for tea. Without doubt, Iranians have got to be the friendliest people in the world.

There was something very warm hospitable and kind in the air it seemed. The very daunting prospect of travelling with 10 unknown ladies over 10 days in completely unfamiliar terrain and what was touted as a conservative restrictive cultural environment, was laughable. And I now happily recommend the same as an experience to cherish. Of course, many factors played out to make it so. Shibani, our group leader’s careful recce of the country’s destinations and hotels and exhaustive list of cafes and travel tips and flexibility with maximising the itinerary for all of us. Mandana Nooran, our delishly beautiful and guide whose animated stories and information nuggets and shopping tips kept us enthralled through long bus rides and on hot afternoons when our legs were giving way. Her impeccable translation of Persian poetry and verse and flawless English descriptions made us all feel at ease in a mostly unfamiliar lingual territory. Ibrahim, our old-soul shy van driver, who chivalrously chaperoned us through day and night drives stopping only to pay tolls or refill our hot water for endless cups of black tea on our drives.

From Tehran to Isfahan and onto Shiraz, and finally Yazd, we covered over a 1000 miles, with pit stops at Kashan and Persepolis. The motley group of 10 professional women each bringing her own fare to the table literally as well, held us all so tightly that despite the flexibility of free evenings in our itinerary, we stuck as a group each night finding gourmet gems across the cities we visited, including a toned down pyjama party with our heads finally uncovered in a hotel room tucking into local Iranian dishes.

Food has got to be one of the highlights of our Iran trip, not so much for versatility across the regions as much as for its soulfulness and the elaborateness of each meal be it at a tiny roadside café or a fancy hotel. And we ladies graced each meal with the zeal of mountaineers and wrestlers, our headscarves providing all the cover we needed to get over any shyness. After 2-3 days of over-ordering to satiate our desire to try every olive marinade and yogurt flavour besides every meat we could discover under the pile of buttered rice, we slipped into such orchestrated communion. The kababs, fish and vegetables cooked in delightful rich spices and fruit pastes resulted in sweet and sour symphonies with occasional chillies to perk up the notes. Plate after plate of fesenjan (pomegranate walnut stew), bademjan ( eggplant and tomato stew), saffron buttered rice ( cooked as chelo or polo- with vegetables) and tahdig which is essentially lip smacking burnt rice, made for healthy wholesome eating on high carpeted platforms where we sat cross legged for many an hour sharing food and banter, resting our tired and happy selves.

The spectacular Khaju bridge notwithstanding, travelling to Iran is like time-travel into “the bridge across forever” to see “naqsh-e-jahan” or half the world. Make your way!

wonderful world Travelling to Bhutan

Traveling to Bhutan, considered the Last Shangri La, had always been a dream for me and it was finally coming true. I had seen an announcement for the June Bhutan trip of Wonderful World on Facebook. The itinerary looked very interesting and I signed up with a friend.

We flew from Delhi to Paro and thanks to the tip by Shibani Vig sat on the left side of the plane by the window and got stunning views of the Himalayan range including Mt. Everest and Kanchenjunga. My trip had begun on a positive note. We landed at Paro airport, a quaint airport with traditional Bhutanese architecture set in a valley with a photo of the 5th king and his wife smiling down on us, welcoming us. The drive to Thimpu took one hour amidst valleys and beautiful landscapes. The seat of government, Thimpu is the largest city in Bhutan and has the historic Dzong (fort), new Buddha Point, temples, clock tower, painting school, and the bustling Farmers market. The organic Bhutanese local produce – fruits, vegetables, legumes, and cereals are sold from different parts of Bhutan.

Our six-day trip took us to beautiful locations which gave us a good sense of western and central Bhutan. The land of Gross National Happiness is maintaining its environment and aims to keep 70% under forest cover, preserving its cultural heritage, and keeping the tourism controlled. We had a packed schedule but the lovely weather and comfortable SUVs didn’t allow us to feel tired. We traveled to Thimpu, Gangtey, Punakha, and Paro. The highlights of the trip were a hike in Gangtey, a beautiful quaint valley with stunning views; a hike to the Fertility temple in Punakha through paddy fields and a village and finally the steep hike on the last day to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro.

The drive to Gangtey took us through the Dochula Pass with 108 stupas and prayer flags. The beautiful Gangtey valley, the land of the Black neck Cranes, gave us a good feel of rural Bhutan. With its farmlands, community forests, rolling green meadows and meandering yaks. The Gangtey hike from the monastery on top of a hill through a beautiful meadow, village, pine forest, and streams was soul-enhancing. Chorten (Stupas) dotted the landscape with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

In Punakha, we went on a hike to the Fertility temple (Chimi Lakhang), through the Fertility valley, with houses painted with the phallus symbol, a sign of fertility and protection. The Punakha Dzong was fascinating, with its architecture, history, the place where the 5th King’s wedding had been held. Built at the confluence of the MoChhu (female river) and PhoChhu (male river), it is the most spectacular Dzong in the kingdom. One sees monks in their red-colored robes and women and men in their Kira’s and Gho’s, traditional dress. Bhutan is one of the few countries where the traditional dress is worn proudly and daily by its inhabitants. The hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery was exceptional. A steep climb, sheer determination and collective encouragement helped take us to the Monastery, perched on the edge of a cliff at the height of 10,000 ft. At the end of the climb, looking down at the valley and feeling the positive energy and peace at the Monastery, the effort seemed well worth it.

Bhutanese food was a mix of red rice, Buckwheat pancakes, Datshi (with local cheese) in different forms – green chili, asparagus, mushroom and different dishes of chicken and meats.

Other fun things that we did were getting our own personalized postage stamp made in Thimpu at the local post office with a Bhutan backdrop and posted our postcards to faraway lands. Another was walking on a long suspension bridge built over the river in Punakha, feeling suspended in time.

Wonderful world specializes in keeping its groups small. We were 14 women of different ages and occupations with a Tour lead, and the itinerary allowed for flexibility and own space if you didn’t want to be in a crowd. It also helped make new friends, bonding over long road trips and evening chai reveling in the beauty of the Himalayan kingdom.

Don’t miss traveling to Bhutan. It’s a country worth visiting…..

It all started in May last year when Shibani posted a sneak preview of Wonderful World’s inaugural trip to Jordan, online. The trip planned for November 2016 sounded different so we enthusiastically signed up for it. And we weren’t disappointed! Our Jordan holiday turned out to be a memorable Middle Eastern sojourn that packed in everything from city sightseeing to walking in the desert, from climbing steep rock-cut steps to swimming in the sea. As the Wonderful World itinerary claimed, within two hours we were able to travel by road in Jordan from a mountainous region to the expansive desert, and finally to the lowest point on the Earth’s surface—the Dead Sea. The highlight of our Jordan holiday of course, was our visit to the stunning ancient city of Petra, a world heritage site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

We landed at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on a Saturday afternoon after a 10-hour flight from Delhi, which included a short stopover in Abu Dhabi. Despite our early morning start in Delhi, we were rearing to explore Amman, a relaxed city atop a hill surrounded by the desert and the Jordan valley. In the evening, we embarked on a walk to the souk in the city centre with our 12-member group. That strenuous but enjoyable walk, during which we had to climb hundreds of steep steps cut in the rock face, set the tone for the rest of our holiday. The route we took was a shortcut to the souk and proved to be very challenging indeed. But the sense of achievement and fulfillment we felt at the end of it was worth every bit of extra effort we put in.

Our first taste of local food was the delicious falafel wrap we had from Al Quds, a small stall that apparently has been serving its popular falafel and shawarma wraps since 1966. For dinner that day, we visited one of the many quaint restaurants on Rainbow Street, the charming location of our hotel, and enjoyed shish taouk, mansaf, kunafe, and other local dishes. We washed our food down with Arabic tea which became a must-have during the trip.

Mansaf, known as the national dish of Jordan, is a flavourful concoction of rice, lamb and rehydrated yogurt which has its roots in the culture of the nomadic Bedouin tribe. Cooked with a blend of spices called ‘baharat’, it is eaten at weddings, religious festivals and other special occasions. Kunafe is a popular Jordanian sweet that consists of soft cheese with a crumbly orange semolina crust that is soaked in sugar syrup. Both mansaf and kunafe are definitely worth a taste despite their high fat content!

The next day we visited the Roman city of Jerash and walked through its colonnaded streets and public plazas, imagining what life must have been like for its inhabitants in ancient times. Jerash reminded us of the Colosseum in Rome. Afterwards, we had lunch with a very hospitable Jordanian family, and were served a sumptuous meal that included a local delicacy called ‘magluba’ which we learnt is an upside-down chicken or vegetable pulao!

The following day found us in Madaba, called the ‘City of Mosaics’ for its remarkable Byzantine mosaics well preserved in its numerous churches and museums. The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Madaba houses a rare 6th century mosaic map showing Jerusalem and other holy sites.
From Madaba, we drove up winding hill roads to the revered site of Mount Nebo, where Moses is believed to be buried. For this reason the site is of historical importance to Christians. The first church at Mount Nebo was built in the late 4th century to mark the place of Moses’ death. At Mount Nebo, we saw for ourselves the breathtaking view of the Holy Land encompassing the Jordan valley, Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem. Both the strong chilly winds and the magnificent views at Mount Nebo nearly swept us off our feet!

Our next stop was Karak castle, a sprawling stone structure with a dry moat, caves, halls and passageways. We ended the day with an overnight stay at the Feynan Eco Lodge in the Dana Biosphere. At this electricity-free lodge, we ate by candlelight and lay down on mattresses on the terrace to gaze at the stars twinkling magically in the night sky!

And then we spent two memorable days in Petra, a city which was carved into the rock face by the Nabatean civilization about 2,000 years ago, and was an important site on trade routes. With its well-developed water channels and impressive rock carvings, this ‘lost city’ was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveller. We explored all there was to see in Petra, from the Treasury to the 1st century Monastery. We had to climb 900 steps cut in the rose-coloured rock to reach the Monastery, certainly an experience to remember! We even experienced Petra by night, walking along a path through the Siq that was lit by 1,800 candles. The winding path culminated at the Treasury where we sat down on mats laid out on the ground to listen to Bedouin music. It was a cold and chilly but mystical night for all of us!

In terms of gastronomical delights, we had great fun at Petra Kitchen, where we cooked dinner with the locals and then enjoyed the meal together. It felt like being on the TV show Masterchef! From chopping ingredients to mashing vegetables, we did it all, and we left with a wad of interesting recipes inspiring us to introduce Jordanian cuisine in our homes.

Our holiday ended with a one night stay at the Dead Sea where all of us excitedly posed for photographs, especially the stereotypical one of lying down in the water and reading a book! We also made sure we applied the famous Dead Sea mud on our faces, arms and legs. We really felt refreshed and rejuvenated afterwards!

A special word of commendation for Wonderful World—the hotels were well located, the ubiquitous guides named Mohammed made the sites we visited come alive, the logistics and transport arrangements were smooth and safe; the group was fun. From cave bars to restaurants to hiking, we did it all under the considerate guidance of Shibani and her team!

We really enjoyed this trip with Wonderful World and look forward to travelling with them again and again!

It is exactly two weeks today since I got back from Spiti but I already want to go back! Is it soon, I ask myself? And then I realize, deep down, I never wanted to return. But since that was not possible, I left a large part of me there. That way, in search of that, I will always find ways of going back.

I have had the luxury of being a world traveller since the last 35 years. No place would touch me the way Ladakh did in India, and Kenya, from amongst the ones abroad. Or so I thought. Till I felt Spiti.

Spiti is remote. Spiti is harsh. Spiti is stark. Spiti is beautiful. Spiti is magic. It tears your heart out, it wrenches your gut, it makes you cry but always leaves you wanting for more!

Its beauty has a vibe which makes one almost cry at times; there is an aura and a peace to the prevailing quietitude. I have never felt closer to the powers that look upon us and to myself as I did in Spiti.

You may think, on reading the above, that I spent all the time by myself. On the contrary; but Spiti called out for some moments only with self and I am happy I succumbed to that charm.

Spiti and the tour was all I had ever imagined it to be! It must be after years quite literally that I was on holiday w/o any family member and in a group where I knew no one. The anonymity that comes on such a journey is liberating. I would have liked to do it in 2015 when I turned 50 but I’m glad this worked out when it did because I was meant to do this with Wonderful World and with this wonderful group of people.

Group travel is addictive in its own way and a terrain like Spiti becomes more doable in a group. Wonderful World had an itinerary which left space for flexibility, for a change in plan or extra time. I will not forget how a request by 2 of us from the group to include Chitkul, the last village on the Indo-China border beyond Sangla, Kinnaur was acceded to. It is not often you find tour organisers willing to even listen to on-the-spot requests leave alone trying to make them happen. Or an unscheduled stop because a certain dhaba looked inviting and the fragrance of samosas was too enticing! Not to forget the innumerable photo stops. All of this done with a smile, but without allowing the day’s itinerary and time schedule to get disturbed.

Wonderful World’s research and eye for detail was obvious throughout our 10 day trip. Their professionalism showed in their choice of vehicles, the drivers who navigated the difficult roads (sometimes non-existent) with confidence and patience, in their endeavor to make long, backbreaking road journeys more pleasant by including a specially put together song medley on personalized pen drives and in their choice of accommodation.

Our trip began from Chandigarh on Day 1 where the group converged from different parts of India. It was about an 8 hour drive to Narkanda our first halt for the night with lunch and a tea stop thrown in. Narkanda was cloudy and misty and we glimpsed a beautiful sunset before we headed to our rooms to freshen up and then to bond over a bonfire. We were all meeting as strangers and who knew then that 10 days down the line we would part as thick friends?

Day 2 was one of our longest days in terms of driving hours on really bad stretches of treacherous roads. However, it was also the beginning of fulfilling sights, moving along the River Sutlej, crossing curves and winding roads which brought forth the adrenalin rush. The drive ended in Sangla where we were hosted in tents in the middle of a beautiful apple orchard. We also celebrated the birthday of one of the travellers in the group with much gusto and song.

Day 3: Happiest we were when the tour coordinator announced the possibility of adding a detour to Chitkul, the last village on the Indo-China border. The drive from Sangla to Chitkul was a heavenly one and Chitkul has a beauty which left us mesmerized.. An hour in Chitkul and then we backtracked our way to Karcham from where again we drove along the Sutlej till we reached the confluence of the Sutlej and the Spiti rivers. Changing course to move along Spiti we left the dense wooded forest and verdant greens to move into Spitian landscape of barren mud mountains. Our halt tonight was at Nako in another campsite quite at a height.

Day 4: An early morning village walk to Nako Lake and the monastery and we were off to Tabo, an almost entirely Buddhist village boasting of a monastery built in 900 AD. The monastery has some exquisite paintings and frescoes and is often called the Ajanta of Spiti. Some meditation caves in the hills added to the mystique.

Day 5: Tabo to Kaza was a surreal drive through the Pin Valley. We were lucky that it had opened up. Till a few days prior to our arrival Pin Valley access road had been obstructed by a sudden landslide which had made the region inaccessible for over a month. Pin Valley brought the best of barren mountains and the river interspersed with green fields. A quick visit to the Gwe monastery to see the mummy remains of a Buddhist monk and then we were off to Kibber via Kaza.

Day 6: The evening before at Kibber was one which will remain as my most favorite memory of the trip. High, literally on a high, at 14000+feet we could reach out and touch the clouds or pluck the stars. It was moment of connect with divinity. Kibber itself is a small village laid out in a bowl surrounded by fields and snowcapped peaks. The homestay which hosted us was very inviting as were our hosts. The night was spent on their mud roof in silence with friends and nature. This was also what had been our most dreaded moment ” the dry toilet which was only a hole in the ground”. Suffice to say that hygiene and sanitation conditions in Kibber far surpassed those of the cities!

From Kibber we retraced our steps to Kaza via Langza (fossil fields and the Medicine Buddha), Komic (the highest inhabited village in the world) and Hikkim ( the highest post office in the world).

Day 7: At Kaza, a free day and how lovely it was. To be able to stop and stare, to be able to stand and breathe, to not get into a car. This break was very welcome and again it was very thoughtful on the part of Wonderful World to have factored this in. Hotel Deyzor, our home in Kaza, was paradise and deserves a post by itself.

Day 8: It was time to bid goodbye to Kaza and Spiti and make our way towards Kunzum Pass and Chandratal Lake. Today’s and the following days drives were to be breathtakingly spectacular but back breaking. Long drives of 10 hours at high altitudes. It was only the music, the extraordinary views and our own laughter which saw us through. The night was spent camping at a site about 2kms away from Chandratal Lake. The lake did not offer us its best views as it was cloudy and had begun to rain because of which we got only about half an hour in all. A little bit of an anti-climax for one of the high points of the trip.

Day 9: Chandratal to Manali was on a road which was non-existent, full of overflowing nallahs, rocks and stones and jerks. It is a wonder we arrived in Manali a good 10-11 hours later in one piece. However, Baikunth Resorts and a good hot shower energized us once more as we took off for a farewell dinner, tinged with bittersweet sadness.

Day 10: Yes, it was time to go home laden with precious memories, and new friendships. A long drive through Kullu Valley along the Beas brought us to Chandigarh and we boarded the Shatabdi yet again . It was not an adieu bit only an au revoir, till we meet again.

Photographs credit by – Jayanti Pandey

Ever since I had spent 6 months in Manila on work, I had been fascinated by South East Asia. The food, the flavors, the people and the stunning diversity in landscapes had always entranced me. It is my dream to backpack through the Golden Triangle (a mountainous opium-producing route running through Laos, Myanmar and Thailand), but more on that later !

I love travelling with Wonderful World via their thoughtfully curated itineraries so when Cambodia and Vietnam came up as a two-in-one tour – I jumped at it. Work deadlines be damned, no corporate honcho was going to stand between me and the Angkor Vat.

All flights to Siem Reap from major Indian cities are via Bangkok. After a weekend stay in Bangkok exploring the delights of the ChatukChak Weekend market and the ancient city of Ayutthaya, I hopped on a bus full of tourists that would cross borders and deposit me at Siem Reap after an 8 hour journey.

Siem Reap is the Gateway to Angkor Vat, which is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. It is the largest religious monument in the world and a UNESCO Heritage Site to boot, originally constructed as a Hindu temple and gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple (Historically there has been a fascinating trend of converting the religions of monuments as well, instead of just people. I observed this in Istanbul at the Haga Sophia also – which was originally a church and gradually became a mosque)

My first evening in Siem Reap was spent exploring pub street – a smorgasbord of loud, cheerful restaurants and shops full of tourists all looking to have a good time. Great food, cheap drinks and wonderful music that included dancing on the street makes pub street the ONLY place to be in the evenings, after long hard days of temple hopping. I fell into bed after a few rounds of the wonderfully delicate Rose Petal infused margaritas.

We woke up nice and early the next day (4 am !) for the most important event of the trip – catching the sun rise over the Angkor Vat temple. A short tuktuk ride away and a quick stop to buy a 3 day pass to the temples got us our first glimpse of the imposing structure. Despite the early morning, tourists thronged the temple for an experience of a lifetime. As the sun slowly rose over the massive structure, its reflection showing up in the large pond inside the temple complex, we gasped in awe and photographers clicked away – hoping for that perfect shot ! As our guide took us through the main sections of the temple, the apsara carvings and naga structures at every door and gate seemed familiar for those of us who have grown up on Hindu Mythology. The temple complex itself is massive, needing at least 2 days to view it completely.

We went back to the hotel for lunch and a quick nap and stepped out once again for more temple hopping.

Let me pause here and share a secret with you. As I was making the booking for this trip – for one short second I had stopped, thinking if all that temple-hopping would really be worth it. I mean how many temples can you ooh-and-aah over ? How fascinating can the same construction style be ? How much could I really walk around and enjoy the different Apsara styles in the sweltering heat. Many of these temples were rumored to be in ruins, did I really want to spend an entire holiday simply wandering around ruins ?

My six days in Siem Reap put to rest all these doubts. Every temple is different and unique. Be it the eye-popping Bayon which has eerily smiling human heads looking at you from all directions, or the sandstone-red Bantey Srei with intricate carvings, or Ta Phrom which is held together only by massive tree roots that snake across the entire temple complex and formed the backdrop of the Angelina Jolie-starring Lara Croft movie, each temple is unique, fascinating and will hold your attention for hours at end.

Some are near the town of Siem Reap and can be accessed via tuktuks or cycles. A cycle tour we took on one of the days was wonderfully breezy – and despite the heat – I really enjoyed myself and bought myself an extra-large drink in the evening to toast the 25 kms I had spent pedaling around. Some are farther away and will need a car or bus to reach. All are equally gorgeous and attention-grabbing though.

The next few days followed a familiar pattern. Wake up, enjoy a hearty breakfast – step out to see the temples. Stop for lunch at the many restaurants dotting the city – try a restaurant that serves Khmer Cuisine, you wont regret it – restaurants at Siem Reap will serve you all kinds of meat, from alligator to red ants and everything in between- so if you’re the adventurous type, let loose ! Afternoons were spent either napping, getting a much deserved massage or wandering around town shopping for soft cotton shirts, souvenirs and silk. The glorious evenings were when we were let loose on Pub Street – to perform the most difficult task of the day – deciding where and what to eat !!!

I could go on and on about the zip-lining adventure that took me soaring over the forests and temples of Angkor Vat on the last day, or the various poses I struck at each temple for photo ops, or the little smiling Cambodian children- always cheerful even in the face of adversity, exhorting you to buy souvenirs, all at just “one dallah” (one dollar, the American currency is widely accepted there) or the heady palm wine that we had one day or the food and wonderful conversations at the end of each day that wiped out the tiredness like a clean slate.

But I won’t

I will let you discover your very own piece of Siem Reap and Angkor Vat for yourself. I will ask you to sign up for the next Siem Reap trip by Wonderful World, coming up this November. I will let you thank me in December when you are back from your Cambodian adventure and we can perhaps catch up one evening as we swap stories of Temples and Margaritas – both of which are in plentiful at Siem Reap !

Photographs – Shibani Vig

I travelled to Andretta over the recent long Easter weekend with Wonderful World. I had heard of Andretta before, seen photos of the mountains and admired their pottery at bazaars in Delhi. I always wanted to visit but had never gotten the opportunity. When I saw the announcement of the trip, I immediately signed up.

We started off from Majnu ka Tila in Delhi by overnight bus and arrived early morning in Kangra and then subsequently to the homestay, The Mirage in Andretta. We arrived at the crack of dawn and it was still dark and light slowly dawned. Walking up the narrow path, we could smell jasmine flowers and hear the call of birds. It was a refreshing change from polluted and noisy Delhi.

The next three days were fabulous, spent in the lap of nature. Amidst lush green trees, chirping birds and a view of snow capped Dhauladhar range of mountains, which felt close enough that we could touch it. My days were spent hiking, relaxing, chatting and making new friends, reading, doing pottery and exploring the small village.

The Mirage is a beautiful homestay with heritage buildings built in old style architecture but with modern facilities. The host Dennis is warm and hospitable sharing stories of his time in the village. The food was freshly cooked, with delicious local produce like peanut butter, marmalade, yoghurt and jam.

I went for two sessions of pottery at Andretta pottery and was trained by the young, talented Shubham Sakhyan. He patiently taught us novices how to work the clay and potter’s wheel. It was fun even though hard to work the manual potter’s wheel. I came away making a small bowl, which felt like a major achievement!

The village has the Shobha Singh gallery, Nora Richards’s house and other charming cottages, fields surrounded by mountains. Our two hour hike one morning with Dennis took us through the forest and up and down a hill, exploring forgotten trails with beautiful morning views of the mountains.

Our last day was spent exploring Kangra fort with an audio tour where Roshan Seth’s voice made the fort and its inhabitants from centuries ago come alive.

I came away from the holiday refreshed, recharged and ready to face the real world again. With hopes of coming back to Himachal Pradesh sometime soon.


Hampi – magical ruins amongst boulders

Earlier this month I received an unexpected call. Wonderful World was having a trip to Hampi and they had a vacant spot. Would I be interested to go?

Well having been in Bangalore for almost 11 years, Hampi was on my bucket list. This was a trip I could not refuse. And I am glad I took it.

As usual Wonderful World takes women who are on their own trip. So we had an amazing and very diverse group of 12 women, from different parts of India of all shapes, sizes and temperaments! And no one I knew.

Hampi – the site of the imperial city of Vijayanagara is located on the Tungabhadra river in central Karnataka. Vijayanagara’s fame derives from its role as capital of South India’s largest, wealthiest and most powerful kingdom The Vijayanagara Empire : hence it’s name ‘City of Victory’.

Hampi’s remarkable landscape surrounded by miles and miles of giant sized boulders, its religious associations and ongoing archaeological investigations make it a destination of international significance.

The city of Vijayanagara lasted only 229 years between 1336 and 1565 yet it has left an indelible mark in its influence, history, architecture and art to make it one of the most remarkable sites in India.

We made our way thru the dry heat to a tiny village of Anegundi where we stayed at a quaint little resort. The next day began our historical journey.

Hampi is divided mainly into 2 parts ie the Sacred Centre and the Royal Enclosure. Today we visited the Sacred Centre. My first view of the huge stone chariot in the Vitthala Temple was truly overwhelming. This temple is supposed to be the first Vitthala temple which was subsequently moved to Punderpur which is an important temple for Maharastrians.

Our next stop was the Virupaksha temple which has a 50 meter high Gopuram Tower, a coronation mandapa of King Krishnadeva Raya and dedicated shrines of Goddesses Pampa Devi ( from where the name Hampi is derived) and Bhuvaneshwari Devi. This is the only active temple in Hampi.

The other sites we visited were the Hemakuta Hill which houses 2 epic and large Ganesha statues. Sadly these bear the scars of the city’s destruction as large chunks were broken off in the invasion with the Moguls. Then there was the Krishna Temple and the Narasimha statue which stands nearly 7 meters high and is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Hampi. We stopped at a beautiful restaurant called the Mango Tree located in the market place for lunch.

The second day was a surprise in itself. It was a reluctant 4.30 am wake up and we walked thru the darkness with mobile lights and couple of torches towards a waiting Coracle. These are large baskets made from bamboo and are used to ferry people across the Tungabhadra river. Darkness surrounded us and the sound of waking birds and gushing water was an amazing day starter. As light fell on the boulders we reached the other side of the river, from where it was a steep uphill climb on the Matanga hill. It is hard to explain what awaited us. This is something that has to be experienced…… explanation cannot do justice to this. It was the most breathtaking view of Hampi. The silence of dawn was broken by chirping of birds and chants from the distant Virupaksha temple as we climbed about 500 steps meandering our way to the top of the hill. The rays of the morning light on the boulders and the serenity of the environment is something I will carry with me for a long time to come.

That afternoon was reserved for the Royal Enclosure visit.

The first stop was the Mahanavami Dibba – a massive pavilion of 40 square meters which was the viewing area on which the royal family and attendants would gather and watch various religious celebrations like Mahanavami (Navratri) which till date remains an important event for Hampi.

Then there was the stepped tank made of green chlorite with a fine geometric symmetry to it. This site was excavated relatively recently in the 1980’s

We visited the Queen’s bath and the Hazara Rama temple which has 1000 sculptures of Lord Rama from where it derives its name. Another amazing site was the Elephant stables which had 11 large domes.

Our guide Vijay Rao was carrying comic books from Amar Chitra Katha and it was a pleasure to go back in time and actually make funny connections to comics I had read many many moons ago. The last evening culminated in a bonfire and a community jamming session by a local group who were a mix of firangs, locals and hippies! The music from the Didgeridoo created magic in the atmosphere. It was a perfect finale to an eventful break.

The trip has been overwhelming and beautiful. The group was small. The memories are big and the experience mind blowing.

A tick mark on my bucket list ….. indeed!

Photographs – Shibani Vig

Har ki Dun uttarakhand

Har ki Dun

I rounded a curve and stopped in my tracks. From left to right stood peak after peak, slopes covered in thick green pines; here and there a slash of white to announce a frozen waterfall. My eyes weren’t used to seeing such things – a scene that looked untouched since the time of creation.

This was my first trek up North. We were heading to Har ki Dun (loosely translated as the Valley of Shiva), located in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. Our guide, Srichand Rana, would smile and say “Bas, chalte raho, chalte raho,” when one of us, in more mental agony than physical, would ask him “How much further????” I must have asked him that question many times on the first day of the trek. I reminded myself of a child in the car, incessantly asking “Are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet??” Our first day started in Taluka, and we followed the course of the Supin river as it led us through deep forests and rocky climbs, to the small village of Seema.

By the second day, my body seemed keen to start walking. The crisp, fresh air and bright sun called to every bone in me – get out and get moving! From Seema, we set out to reach our campsite, Har-ki-Dun. The second day’s climb was tougher than the first, but I enjoyed the view much more. We followed the trail as it wound around the mountain, traversing fields of wheat, forests of birch and pine, and the occasional flock of goat and sheep; the beauty cannot be described.

In the mountains, a whole year passes in a day; and a day stretches endlessly. Summer, Monsoon and Winter came and went in a span of 24 hours. I learnt how to tell the weather by looking at the sky, instead of my phone. I learnt how to smell the rain 30 minutes before it came down. I learnt how a clear, baby-blue sky dotted with cotton clouds, could turn dark and cold in under 10 minutes. I learnt that the best way to wait out a small hailstorm was to wait under a thick tree, while hugging my freezing hands under my armpits. I learnt that a poncho is useless in a mountain shower – the wind blows it up in your face and you often can’t see where you’re placing your foot. I also learnt that you can keep going, long after you think you can’t. And believe me, I was close to giving up on the first day, after a hailstorm.

On the evening of the second trekking day, we reached our campsite.

As we were sitting in the kitchen tent and having some much-needed chai, one of us saw a big, white mist come rolling down the plain. “What’s that, what is happening?” someone said. Turns out it was a cloud, making its own climb to the ice-capped peaks. For close to an hour, we were dipped in a thick white mist. It was like something out of a supernatural movie! This was also the first time I saw snow fall! Our third day, spent at camp, was a peaceful one where everyone was free to do what they wanted. Towards sunset, the weather suddenly turned very, very cold, with a chilled wind cutting through my face. A group of us were sitting inside the kitchen tent, huddled together for warmth, and we were all sharing stories and chatting. Suddenly, it went quiet outside; the wind had dropped and not a sound could be heard. I stepped outside to see the most magical sight I have seen – soft snow, falling silently. The tree tops, the tents, the grass beneath my feet – everything was white.

After a brief snow fight (toooooooo much fun!) we all snuggled into our warm tents and slept soundly. The next day, we were to pack up and start our walk back the way we came. This time, the trek seemed much shorter and more enjoyable, mostly because we were familiar with the route.

While walking back, the one thing I kept thinking was “I wish I could bottle up this crisp, clean air and take it back with me.” The weird smell that city air carries with it was not something I was looking forward to. The water that we drank during the trek came from the river – sparkling clear, with a chilled, crisp taste of the kind that no bottled water can ever give.

In short, the mountains left their mark and I’m absolutely sure I will be visiting again soon. Thank you, Wonderful World, Sejal Mehta Srichand Rana and the entire crew for making it an unforgettable experience.

Image credit – Amita Major and Jyothi Jayan Warrier

Meghalaya diaries

I signed up for the Meghalaya trip blindly due to my faith in Wonderful World (having done the unforgettable Bhutan trip with them) and the trip leader and good friend Sejal.

Day 1:

Ganga and I landed in Guwahati at 18:00 PM. I always fancied having someone stand at the airport holding a placard with my name on it. So eagerly I scanned the jostling placards…no luck…apparently I am quite recognizable… not sure which vital statistics of mine were described to the charming guide Kulen who was waiting.

Serpentine roads, pleasant weather and lots of wine bars dotted the 3 hour journey to Shillong. I suffer from motion sickness and sure enough began to feel nauseous. Prayers to Goddess Hygieia (health) and we reached the charming Aerodene cottage; our stay in Shillong. We could not meet the rest of the group who were out exploring Shillong as we were the last to arrive (why…a story to be told for another day…do I hear Sejal sniggering as she reads this). A simple yet delish meal awaited us. Got introduced to the vegetable squash and I am a fan for life.

Day 2:

Come morning and looked like the rain gods responded instead of Goddess Hygieia…you think proxy works in the heavens?? The skies opened and heavy rains showered. My heart sank…all my lovely clothes more suited for the beach were now in vain. Out came the really ugly rain poncho which made me look like a cross between superman and bat man. I am vain and make no bones about it. So the rain poncho gave me a lot of grief.

At breakfast we met up with the rest of the group. Few were WW repeaters. Over the course of the trip we bonded over our fondness for laughter, wit, travel, tomfoolery, food…the list is endless. We were 12 in total split between 4 Innovas. The incessant rain accompanied us to the Mawphlang Sacred forest. The entrance is guarded by megaliths or giant stones believed to be centuries old. These are protected forests and a lot of stories and legends abound the area. We walked in to the canopy of trees and were transported to a different world – the velvet moss covered fallen logs, little brooks, shrubs glistening with water droplets, ancient burials and the veil of the mist was a picture to behold. We spied a pine tree (I forget the name) an endangered species which seeds once in 300 yrs. It is now 273 years old.

The guide updated us on the Khasi culture. I asked the guide if he would wear the traditional attire for his wedding, he said, “Nope! I will wear a tux.” J So much for traditions!!!

We then decided to embark on the David Scott trail which is a 16 km trek….. Too ambitious, the rains had made the grounds slippery…we lost a couple of members as they had encountered the ground rather painfully and decided to return to the warmth of the vehicles. The rest of us decided to trudge along. The valley looked lovely and I am sure it would have been awe-inspiring on a clear day. But this trek is probably not for amateurs. We collectively decided to abandon the trek, took the obligatory pictures and returned to our vehicles.

We lunched at Café Shillong Heritage, Tripura Castle. Great ambience, good food (Bastenga- local food) and totally recommended. I got talking to the manager and was told that the Tripura prince loves dogs and the castle is home to 147 mongrels. It’s a dog’s world I guess!

Post lunch some opted to repose and the rest visited one of the oldest churches in Meghalaya – All Saints Cathedral, a charming church rebuilt in the early 1900s. We also visited Shillong Catholic Cathedral but we could have given it a miss unless we wanted to sound out the Weather God.

We dined at the rooftop nightclub Cloud 9. Live music, good food, whiskey sours (thanks Shilpa J) and laughter – great combination so fun times it was.

Day 3:

The weather was the same…rains…by now we were getting kinda used to it. After breakfast, off we went to the local market, Bara bazaar. It was wet and dirty. Only the vibrant vegetables added color to the drab atmosphere. Plus in the narrow alleys, I was trying to maneuver with a large golf umbrella and ended up dripping rainwater into the local folks’ hot chais…the dirty looks I got…I scuttled out pretty quick. Stopped at Bata for rain proof sandals as both my sets of shoes were sodden and stank to the heavens.

We proceeded to Elephanta falls which is a waterfall in three stages. Due to the rains the falls were in full force. The falls are lovely but the crowded area, touristy and cemented look around it took away the beauty. The weather was a bit of a dampener so we circumvented and did a quick tour. Sonia and her daughters Nadine and Mallika hired the traditional costumes and made a colourful picture.

Cherrapunji: I was excited…my geography lessons and now I get to see the wettest place on Earth and it totally lived up to its title. We lunched at Orange Roots which was a South Indian restaurant. Being from the South, I was like… seriously rice and sambhar in Cherrapunji!!!

We reached Polo Orchid Resort our accommodation for the next 2 days. This resort is located opposite the famous Nongsithiang Waterfalls (also called Seven sister falls). A breathtaking sight I am sure but the heavy mist totally obscured our viewing. The hotel had comfortable large rooms but lacked the character of Aerodene Cottage. The food was good and the staff courteous. That day was wasted due to the heavy rains. We were a bit tired from the road trip. By this time I had discovered Avomine tabs and my serpentine journeys were now enjoyable. In the evening, we grouped in one of the rooms as was our customary habit to chill and listen to Dia belt out yet another song which was always a delight. Another day ended.

Day 4:

This day turned out to be one of the most memorable days for us. At 6:00 AM we ventured out to see the Seven Sister falls. For our luck there was a break in weather and briefly the veils of the mist parted to give us a glimpse of the magnificent falls. I could see about 5 strands before the mist covered the view. But I was elated.

We then proceeded to see the fourth highest waterfall in the world. Falling from a height of 1,100 feet, Nohkalikai Falls are spectacular. But no luck, the mist decided to play hide and seek. Armed with hot chais, we stared intently in to the mist hoping for a glimpse but the viewing proved elusive.

Our next stop, the Mawsmai caves. The tourists are allowed to access up to 150 mtrs of the limestone caves. The caves were not lit so we used our mobile flashlights, kicked off our shoes though I hung on to my “Bata” sandals and entered the caves. It involved a lot of body contouring to proceed through…I thanked my yoga teacher…to his horror it took me a month to touch my toes J We all loved the experience and the challenge. The stalactites formations were interesting. Hats off to Jyothi who lugged her heavy camera in to the caves to take the pictures.

We returned to the hotel, breakfasted and set off to view the double decker bridge. The double-decker and single-decker root bridges are unique to Meghalaya, some are believed to be about 500 years old and are grown not built!

Now, I had not done homework before I embarked on my Meghalaya journey. So I went to see the living roots bridge with no pre-conceived notion which according to me is the best thing I have ever done. Usually I read up or do a lot of research before a holiday that I am constantly correcting guides and get dirty looks for my earnestness.

We reached the starting point of our trek. We were told that to reach the bridge we need to cross 3500 steps. Gulp!!! A sprightly young guide Frederick joined us. He has sometimes made the journey more than a couple of times a day. Goodness!!

Rough cemented steps are created for the tourists. But I am thinking they miscalculated the average foot size and I found myself walking sideways. The steps are almost vertical on the way down and if you look at it…your head may reel. So we literally just concentrated one step at a time. Mild showers helped cool us down. Liane who is in to fitness and I whose idea of exercise is looking at other people exercise went ahead. The vista was fantastic and the climb challenging. Not many tourists attempt this climb so most times we were alone in the rain forests. After about an hour, we came upon a steel cable bridge. It was a sight to behold. The rapids and rocks that we could view under the bridge were scary. I set off and the bridge got wobbly. I absolutely loved it. We crossed yet another cable bridge.

We began to tire and just when we thought we need to rest and take a breather…through the branches of the trees…we suddenly had our first glimpse of the double decker bridge. We instinctively looked at each other and with a renewed burst of energy scrambled up the steps to view the bridge.

The sheer rawness of nature, the stark beauty…. I do not have words to describe the visual treat, the click says it all. The rest of the team joined us at varied intervals. We soothed our feet in the swirling waters. The trek back to the starting point was a test to our endurance. Climbing 3500 steps….I was lucky to spot an eighty year old man ahead of me and with this inspiration I was able to reach in record time. Arpita was the last to reach but a hot cup of tea revived her pretty quick and she was back to her bubbly self. Needless to say, that was our last activity for the day.

Day 5:

After the trek the previous day, we were in agony, unused muscles made their presence known. Most of us were walking in a disjointed manner. Even lifting the foot to take a step forward involved a lot of effort. We left Cherrapunji and drove to Langkawet a remote village. We stayed in rustic cottages and bonded over hot food.

Baccardi resulted in “new” friends much to Suprr’s disgust. J The rains followed us. Some opted for a short trek in the rain. I opted for the warm bed and sank in to oblivion only to be rudely awakened two hours later by Sejal because she was bored and wanted to talk. I had a good mind to push her out in the rain and continue with my sleep. But I am ‘sweet’ as is often told to me, obliged and probably bored her with my outbursts J

During the trip, my aunt often referred to me as ‘Princess’ which loosely translated to – get off your high horse and come down to earth girl. But the term caught on and I was teased mercilessly. I have a problem… if someone gives me a pseudo name I begin to act like one. So many had to put up with my “princess” behavior but I am not to be blamed. I was just living up to my name J I am now called pumpkin but optimistic me is behaving like Cinderella at the ball rather than look in to the mirror and get a reality check.

Day 5 was at leisure which is good after the amazing treks the previous day.

Day 6:

We proceeded towards Shillong. En route we stopped to see the single living roots bridge. It is a short trek and the bridge is spectacular. We visited the cleanest village in Asia; Mwallynong. It was a lovely stroll through the mist. I fell in love with the quaint church there. The cute children playing in the lanes warmed our heart. We had the option of trekking to an abandoned village but by now I had removed the word ‘trek’ from my dictionary. I was like there must be a good reason that the village is abandoned let us respect that and keep away.

Post lunch we reached Shillong. The rain had lessened and we had brief dry spells. Evening we roamed the bazaars for keepsakes for family and friends. A good night’s rest followed by breakfast, it was now time to bid goodbye.

Day 7:

As we sped to the Guwahati airport, we glimpsed the impressive Umiam lake which is a reservoir. We stopped at Ri Kynjai, a luxury getaway resort. The unusual architecture, interiors and scenic beauty makes it a must visit. We had authentic Assamese food at Paradise in Guwahati.

I like travelling and now that I do not have as much responsibilities as my kids are all grown up I indulge. I had never been to the North East of India and Meghalaya seemed like a good start. I came away with a lot of memories. Yes, the rains inconvenienced us…yes…our clothes and shoes were constantly damp…yes we could not view some of the falls which was a bummer. But what I experienced was a way of life. As we sit in our AC cabins and crib away at little things, school kids brave the rains and go to school. They have 2 sets of clothes with them always; wet and dry. People are out in the rain doing their chores. Wheel barrows are fashioned out of wood and used. Bridges are grown. The roads are so well maintained. If there is a landslide within hours it is cleared. I never imagined that I would do the 7000+ steps in record time, I totally impressed myself. Of course it does not take much for me to get impressed J but I surpassed my expectations. Old friendships just got stronger. The visual treat that is Meghalaya was soothing to the soul. I appreciate vegetarian fare now. I learnt from my fellow travelers and have tucked away all the little memories which will remain etched in my memory for a long time. I did not think I would miss my hideous rain poncho but I did.

So thank you WW for providing yet another memorable holiday and so much more…muahhhh!

I found my mecca – memories of spiti valley

Some places touch the eyes…and some, the heart!

It was a February night when I lay on my bed, checking my Facebook alerts, etc., and I came across this group called Wonderful World that was conducting a 10-day trip to Spiti Valley. I have to confess, I had not even heard of this place before that moment. But, you know, how they say that there are some people who you may meet for the first time, but it still feels like you’ve known them forever…I felt this convinced about and connected to Spiti Valley as soon as I just read the name and saw a couple of pictures of the place. Yes, it, indeed, was like a ‘love at first sight’ kind of an affair!

And, things were just meant to be and let this love affair click. Within just a couple of hours, I wrote to Shibani, got the details…and…I was set to take the trip.

The entire experience of Spiti Valley is way beyond words, and definitely beyond the photos that the best of photographers could capture. You simply can’t get enough of the place. The extremes and extremities of nature’s wonders — from the enormity of the mountains, to the silent, yet strong rivers, to the lush greenery — this journey has it all. It’s impossible to fathom the extremities that this place brings with it. Also, there is this huge element of raw and rustic flavour — from the food, to the simplicity in the lifestyle — that, literally, makes you realise how far away you are from the basic, untouched, yet beautiful realities of life. This place doesn’t just simply let you breathe fresh air, it, literally, makes you breathe simplicity and the pure and untouched side of life.

Of course, ironically, once I was back from the trip, I was back to the hustle and bustle of daily life…making me miss the peace, calm and simplicity even more. Even today (practically two months after the trip), whenever I am relaxing while doing yoga, I, literally, have the breathtakingly beautiful view of ChandraTaal lake right in front of my eyes. It’s like a bout of withdrawal that I experience so often.

While I can get into the details of each and every place that we visited, I would prefer not doing so, as it may just act like a spoiler and give away so much about the place. One of the 13 lovely ladies on the trip aptly said, “Dil hi nahi bharta hai” (the heart just can’t get enough of this place!). And, I totally echo that sentiment. There is just something about this place that makes you want more, more, and lots more of it.

The one other really amazing thing that Spiti has done to me is that it has reawakened my love and passion for travelling, which had taken a backseat because of the way one runs around in life and is constantly keeping pace with a number of personal affairs, professional commitments, and just that unknown, unexplainable thing that stops you from packing your bag.

I would go far as saying that Spiti is like the Mecca for all lovers of nature and peace — it would be a sin if you miss being here, at least, once in your life.

To conclude, all I can say is — Spiti, thank you so much for making me realise that finally, it’s time to stop…time to pack…and time to soak in the joys of travelling and the wonders of nature.

wonderful world turkey tour

How i missed my flight and still made it to my dream destination – turkey

How I missed my flight and still made it to my Dream Destination

As I signed the last document in office, with one eye on my watch, I realized I was going to miss my flight.

I was flying to Bombay tonight and had a connecting flight to Istanbul in the early hours of the morning. Istanbul !!!! The city of my dreams and Turkey – a country I had been planning to visit for almost 5 years now. There were bittersweet connotations to my longing for Turkey, but I was determined to make it this time, missed flight or no missed flight. This was a trip with Wonderful World – whose charms I had already experienced in my earlier, near magical trip to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Shibani from Wonderful World is known to plan trips down to the last detail and always adds interesting elements, so I was super excited ! To cut a long story short, I hopped into a cab from office, canceled my Bombay flight, booked a later one and still made it for my connecting flight

Day 1 (2nd October) : Istanbul. As I emerged from the airport into this dream of a city straddling Europe and Asia, I felt like a conqueror. After the Greeks, Persians and Romans – I was going to discover Istanbul and make it my own. The airport is well-connected to the city-centre by the Metro and a short ride and change of trains later, I emerged into the charming Istiklal Caddesi – a high street full of shops, pubs, restaurants, pattiseries, theatres and a tram line that runs right through the middle.

A quick check-in at our hotel and we were ready to step out to discover what Istanbul had in store for us. We walked down the cobbled streets, past the Galata Tower and flanked on both sides by shops selling everything touristy – musical instruments, Beautiful glass and mosaic lamps, Turkish towels and soaps, magnets, colorful Turkish carpets and kilims and mounds upon mounds of the local delicacy – Turkish Delight (or as it is known locally – Loqum).

As we emerged, an estuary of the Bosphorus lay in front of us, gleaming blue – a stretch of water separating two districts of the city. We walked across the Galata bridge and saw locals with fishing rods positioned for the best catch over the bridge. A quick stop at the Rustam Pasha Mosque with beautiful tile work in its interiors (it reminded me of the Delft Blue Pottery of the Netherlands, though the designs are very different) and a snack of Doner Kabab later, we were famished. Dinner was at a beautiful water-side restaurant under the Galata bridge, where we met Emre – our guide for the trip, but all I remember of that night is my introduction to Raki. It is the local tipple, an unsweetened, aniseed flavoured alcoholic drink that goes smoothly down one’s throat. Raki had me at hello and was my constant companion every night spent thereafter in Turkey !

Tourist Tip : While you may be tempted to buy souvenirs in Istanbul, try to avoid that and buy them only in other smaller towns like Cappadocia where they are far cheaper. What to buy ? Lots !!! Bags, shoes, carpets, rugs, Warm ponchos, Turkish dolls, magnets, ceramic ware, soaps, Turkish towels, key rings and other trinkets with the famous Turkish Evil Eye design to ward off evil spirits

Day 2 (3rd October) : Istanbul (Old City) : Most of today would be spent wandering among the mosques and palaces of the Sultan Ahmet Square, including the Blue Mosque. To match, I was wearing white and blue today. If you are doing this on your own keep at least a day and that may still be less to take in all the magnificence that is on offer.

Beautifully maintained by the government, these historic monuments are silent sentinels of the bygone era, one that is cris-crossed with Roman, Greek, Byzantine and many other influences. We visited the famed Blue Mosque, the Haga Sophia – which was a church and was then turned into a moslem place of worship (fascinating to see Christian and Muslim religious imagery exist side by side), The Topkapi Palace (immaculate lawns and grounds) and the Basilica Cistern

Copious amounts of Turkish tea in small glasses were had and lunch was an interesting Turkish dish called Testi Kabab. As tasty as its name, it is cooked in a sealed clay pot and is brought to the tables and broken in front of the diners with a flourish by the waiter, the warm meat tumbling out to appease hungry palates. The day ended with a visit to the mush talked about Grand Bazaar. Like Alladin’s cave, this treasure trove contains many treasures including jewellery and leather jackets. Bargain like your life depends on it and enjoy the experience of soaking in the sights and smells of Turkish men and women selling their wares to unsuspecting tourists. On the way back, we stopped for another Turkish delicacy – Kumpir. Kumpir is also called the Turkish Subway Sandwich….a huge baked potato that is split open, the soft flesh mashed together with copious amounts of butter and cheese and then stuffed with meat and other toppings of your choice. It’s a veritable party-in-a-potato….Thus satisfied and further fortified with raki, we made our way back to our hotel.

Day 3 (4th October) : Istanbul : A glorious day again, we had been lucky so far and were getting beautiful sunny weather with slight winds in Istanbul. After a wonderful breakfast with a view at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, we trooped to our bus which took us to Dolma Bahce Palace today – another outrageously lavish and beautiful palace. After oohing and ahing over its baccarat crystal chandeliers, we hopped over to the bosphorus for a cruise down its famed blue waters – an experience not to be missed. Lunch was at one of Istanbul’s most famous restaurants, Hamdi and after stuffing ourselves with the choicest meats, we made our way to Spice Market and the Arasta Bazaar where I was introduced to the delights of Turkish Apple tea, which I was happy to have endless amounts of. After wandering through markets we headed back to the hotel and came out for a last drink in Istanbul – I was sad to go but I knew I would be back in this beautiful city that welcomes strangers with open arms.

Day 4 (5th October) : Kusadasi : We flew out of Istanbul and halfway across Turkey into the beach town of Kusadasi. Kusadasi is the stopping point for the luxury cruise ships that sail on the Aegean and also a base location for numerous day trips to places in and around Kusadasi. Its a quaint little beach town with restaurants and pubs dotting the seafront. On the way to Kusadasi from the airport, we stopped at a lovely organic restaurant for lunch. Fresh produce in jars, a lovingly-served 4 course meal which included Manti – the Turkish version of Yoghurt covered Ravioli, red-wine and the for desert – the largest juiciest grapes I had ever seen or eaten.

We reached our lovely hotel in Kusadasi and tired after the long journey, some of us made our way to a Turkish Hamam – the local way of taking a community bath. It consists of a large heated room with various bath kiosks. You keep your clothes in a locker, enter the hamam, take a bath in one of the open bath kiosks, along with everyone else and lay down on the large heated marble stone at the centre of the Hamam. Lay as long as you need to feel relaxed, post which one of the attendants will scrub you and bath you – leaving you refreshed. Now – here’s a quick warning – the Turkish Hamam is not for the squeamish. If you are not comfortable taking a community bath (and all its accompanying baggage), then don’t venture into it. But if you are all for trying new experiences, go for it and decide for yourself if it is for you.

Day 5 (6th October ) : The ruins (and cats) of Ephesus : Today was spent wandering among the ruins of Ephesus. Ephesus is an ancient city in Turkey’s Central Aegean region, near modern-day Selçuk. Its excavated remains reflect centuries of history, from classical Greece to the Roman Empire – when it was the Mediterranean’s main commercial center – to the spread of Christianity. While most of the city has been reduced to rubble and a few columns, the library and Ampitheatre (remember the Farhan Akhtar – Priyanka Chopra scene from Dil Dhadakne Do ? Yes yes, we posed at the same spots) remain glowing examples of the stunning architecture. And let me tell you about the cats of Ephesus- while there are cats everywhere in Turkey – sunning themselves on carpets, sleeping in the middle of the road, curled up on benches or just watching regally as the world hurries past – the cats of Ephesus were a breed unto themselves. Running swiftly among the ruins – almost like tourist guides, perched upon broken columns like descendants of some mysterious gods or lapping water from the square holes carved into the stones, the cats of Ephesus could have told us a tale or two about the secrets of the city, if only they could talk ! This day full of history was rounded off by a visit to the house where the Virgin Mary is believed to have lived and the site where the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World) once existed. All that remains today is a single pillar. Another day well spent and another evening in the company of wonderful women !

Day 6 (7th October ) : Unesco World Heritage Site of Hierapolis-Pamukkale : If you search for pictures of Turkey on the internet – chances are that photos of Pamukkale are what you will see first. Surreal and immensely photogenic, these hot spring pools contained within calcite terraces are carved out from the cliffside and I was waiting eagerly to see if the place was as beautiful as its photos. Deriving from springs in a cliff almost 200 m high overlooking the plain, calcite-laden waters have created at Pamukkale (Cotton Palace) an unreal landscape, made up of mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins. At the end of the 2nd century B.C. the thermal spa of Hierapolis was established. The ruins of the baths, temples and other Greek monuments, including an extensive necropolis (A necropolis is a large ancient cemetery ) can be seen at the site. Straightaway let me tell you that the springs at Pamukkale are as beautiful as its pictures – though – disappointingly – very crowded. Go barefoot and splash your way into the springs – if you’re feeling adventurous (like one of us did), don a bathing suit and soak in the goodness of the minerals and hope to get miraculously cured of all your ills. The hot springs and a cold-ice cream later, we were on our way to our hotel for the night where dinner and a belly dance performance later, we tucked into bed early, for our long drive to Cappadocia the next day

Day 7, 8 and 9 (8th, 9th, 10th October ) : Cappadocia : If you ask me to give you a detailed description of the next 3 days, I would be hard pressed to remember exact events. What I do remember is that I never ever wanted to leave Cappadocia. Was it the first sight of the fairy chimneys (tall, cone-shaped rock formations) that had doors and windows carved into them and people still living inside, was it the early morning hot air balloon ride (followed by champagne) over this surreal fairytale landscape, was it the performance by the Whirling Dervishes (A Sufi Order founded by Rumi’s followers) that left me strangely calm and soothed, was it a visit to the underground cities in the region that had me both fascinated and terrified at the darkness and sadness of it all, was it the kindness and courtesy of a restaurant owner letting some of us take over the kitchen to cook an Indian dish that we were desperately missing, or was it being greeted in Bengali (yes yes, Bengali !) by a Turkish shop owner who had picked up the language from his time in Bangladesh where he spent a year teaching carpet making to young, underprivileged girls or was it the unbelievably charming cave hotel that we stayed in. Perhaps it was all of them, perhaps it was none of them, but I do know that WHEN (not IF) I go back to Cappadocia, I will spend many more days soaking in the charm of the place.

Soon it was time for us to head back home. A beautiful country, warm if slightly gruff people but hearts as soft as loqum, food to die for and fabulous shopping – that sums up Turkey for me. The trip had Wonderful World’s trademark touches – meticulously planned, everyone’s needs taken care of (including vegans, non-onion and garlic eating travelers and vegetarians), throwing in the unusual, painstakingly researched itinerary and hotels that shone brightly like hidden gems. And the key ingredient in this cocktail was wonderful travel companions and wonderful friends that I made. Wonderful World – cant wait to travel with you again !!! Shibani – what do you have up your sleeve next ?

wonderful world Andretta, Himachal Pradesh tour

I had always wanted to travel, but as a single woman I had no idea how to go about it. Then I saw a post by Wonderful World in a Facebook group regarding an all-women tour to Andretta, Himachal Pradesh. The funny thing is, I have never travelled before, and had never even heard of this place Andretta! But I got this positive gut feeling about this tour, so I immediately booked my spot. My excitement grew day by day as the date of our departure neared. I would be travelling with a group of other women travellers, and the idea of this all-women trip sounded so much fun!

And finally it was time to leave! There is no doubt that there was magic in the air the night we left. I got my favorite berth–the side upper—in the train from Delhi to Pathankot. Yeah!! Andretta is a four-hour drive from Pathankot and there were Innovas booked to take us there. The atmosphere had a feel-good element to it, and of course I was happy and excited… But when we reached the home-stay booked for us, I was left breathless…

It was drizzling lightly, and everything looked so bright and fresh… The cheerful chirping of the birds… Dainty cottages set in the foothill of a small hill… The narrow footpath leading to the cottages lined with flowering shrubs on both sides… The air heavy with the scent of spring blossoms and the fragrance of the wet earth… Wow!! Just how surreal everything was! I felt as if I had walked right into some children’s fairy-tale!

I kind of went into the real-life mode at the meal time. I am a vegan, and how convenient would it be for me to get a decent vegan meal? I need not have worried! To my surprise, the kitchen staff, and even the owners of the cottage took extra efforts to ensure that I felt at home. Over the course of our stay, they actually made many special vegan dishes for me in addition to what were by default vegan–ratatouille, apple crumble with coconut flakes, raw fruit cake with spicy ginger syrup, banana ice cream with choco sauce n almonds, vegetable pie, and sandwiches with home-baked vegan bread!! Wow!!

Andretta’s such a beautiful place, all calm and peaceful—away from the hustle-bustle of city life. I went for long walks and discovered a couple of streams, trekked over a small hill, observed the greenery and flowers, watched the birds, and took a lot of pictures. Wonderful World had also booked pottery classes for us.

Andretta’s such a beautiful place, all calm and peaceful—away from the hustle-bustle of city life. I went for long walks and discovered a couple of streams, trekked over a small hill, observed the greenery and flowers, watched the birds, and took a lot of pictures. Wonderful World had also booked pottery classes for us.

The highlight of the tour was the paragliding. I will never forget the drive to Bir-Billing. Those narrow, precariously winding mountain roads… The light drizzle, the wispy white clouds floating by… The Rhododendron trees in full bloom, studded with blood red flowers–a pop of color in the dreamy, misty atmosphere of the hills… The excitement kept on building until it was time to actually paraglide—what an awesome experience it was! Floating above the green hills, with snow-capped mountain ranges glistening silver in the background, the huge Rhododendron trees looking like rose bushes below you, the cool mountain air caressing your face… So exhilarating-totally out of the world!!

By the time we boarded the train back to Delhi, I was totally exhausted but deeply fulfilled. The experience was so rejuvenating and spiritually uplifting. I sincerely feel blessed to have been on this trip, and am eagerly looking forward to travel with Wonderful World again.

wonderful world Himachal-Pradesh tour

I recently had a chance to spend a long weekend in the small artisan’s village in Himachal Pradesh called Andretta. Let me start off by saying it was wonderful! A perfect weekend getaway which offers a variety of activities ranging from Paragliding to simply lazing around at the home-stay with absolutely nothing to do other than imbibe the beauty around you and hope to carry some of it back with you at the end of the weekend.

We started our journey by arriving in Pathankot via train and then started out on a four hour drive to Andretta village. I love the mountains. They make me feel calm and content with life and help me forget any troubles that I may have in my everyday life. I felt the familiar calm settled over me as soon as we started our drive to Andretta. The drive was stunning to say the least! Himachal Pradesh was seeing unseasonable rain for that time of the year and so, as far as I was concerned, the overcast skies simply added to the beauty of the journey.

As lovely as the journey was, my joy was doubled once I saw the home-stay that we were going to live in for the weekend. The Mirage is a beautiful place set in a lane off of the main road in Andretta and is surrounded by beautiful trees and flowers. The home-stay is made up of several lovely cottages; all done up beautifully and in good taste. The owners, Dennis and Dolly, make you feel right at home with good home cooked meals and great company. You can go for breakfast to the dining are and spend the morning looking out for beautiful birds and a great view of the snow covered mountains around you.

Himachal Pradesh saw unseasonable rain in March. So we arrived in Andretta in the midst of a lot of rain that carried on for a better part the three days that we were there. I am not sure, but that may have been a reason for the amount of snow that we saw on the mountains around us. Honestly, while I was there, a whole lot of conversation was not on my mind. It was just too beautiful to ask for a lot of information on the place. I was content to sit back and enjoy the beauty around me. However, with the weather being what it was, we were a little worried about whether we would be able to go through with the paragliding program or not.

Andretta is a lovely place to go on walks and treks. I chose the former and got to see some lovely little spots hidden down unassuming paths. During our stay there we walked through some fields and got an even more stunning view of the snow covered peaks. on the whole a very pleasant couple of evenings spent walking around the village.

Very close to The Mirage is Andretta Pottery, which is what Andretta is famous for. They make some of the most amazing blue pottery and have won several accolades for it. Our trip organiser, Wonderful World, arranged for one day of pottery classes with them. Sitting for those pottery classes was a revelation in itself. Surprisingly, pottery is a very calming process. Our teacher, Shubham, told me that unless you are feeling calm and focused, it was very difficult to get any step right in the process. And it was really believable. Centering that lump of clay felt like I really needed to be centered. The whole process makes you think of nothing other than the task at hand and it was oddly liberating. I did manage to create my first bit of pottery (though I admit it was with a lot of help from Shubham). It was amazing how we would all struggle with all our might with every step and de-shape the clay and he would just come along and set it right with one hand – ONE hand!!!!! All thanks to Shubham though for making the experience so amazing!

After a lot of crossed fingers and toes and various limbs and several prayers offered to the weather Gods, we finally got a beautiful bright and sunny day to go paragliding! We left early on the morning to get to the Paragliding sight in Bir-Billing. Bir and Billing are two villages in the Dauladhar mountain range in Himachal Pradesh that are known as the second best site in the world and the best site in Asia for Paragliding. You take off from Billing at a height of 2400 meters and land in Bir, which is about 1000 meters lower. It is only an hour and half’s journey at best from Andretta and was our final destination before leaving for our home towns. The Gods had finally smiled upon us and we were going to get a chance to go paragliding.

An what an experience it was! We were of course going to go tandem with more experienced pilots. And they really seemed to know what they were doing. We were harnessed up and ready to literally run off a cliff! I take a pause here to tell you about the amazing Rhododendrons that we saw all the way to Billing. Apparently, due to the crazy weather there weren’t as many flowers as there usually are during that time, and having seen what I have, I cannot imagine what the mountains would look like when in full bloom. It was spectacular. They say that entire mountain sides turn red during the season.

And then we took off! It felt like I was flying! The wind was rushing all around me and there were no sounds to be heard 2400 meters up in the air. The view was amazing all around us and all we had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride quite literally. I didn’t want the ride to end! And to make it all a little more interesting our pilots did a small trick and took us whirling down almost to the base at Bir. Then, touch down. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I can only compare it to going scuba diving in the Andamans which was just as amazing!

And just like that our trip was coming to an end. We packed up and got into our cars for the four hour drive back to Pathankot railway station to get back to Delhi and then onto our hometowns. Thank you Andretta for giving us such a wonderful time. And yes, Thank you Wonderful World for organizing such a fabulous tour for us and making it all so easy for us. I hope to do another trip with you soon. As for Andretta, I am definitely going back again, even if it is just for another weekend!

Blog reproduction from Neha Sharma’s blog at www.amfootlooseandfancy-free.blogspot

Windswept galle

When I was about seven, I think, and it was my first time visiting Mumbai (then Bombay), I believed that every alley and every street would somehow dead-end into the Arabian Sea. Imagine my disappointment, then, to find that most of Bombay dead-ended into a snarl of traffic somewhere instead of dead-ending into the ocean!

Finally, donkeys’ years later, to my utter joy, I discovered Galle Dutch Fort – a UNESCO heritage site of a fortified city surrounded by ramparts on all sides, built by the Dutch somewhere in the 17th century. And here was at last, a childhood dream come true – where every street, yes, every street and every alley dead-ended into the Sea! Even streets like these, with mildewed, sepia-toned walls…!

But first the Dutch fort itself – colored ominous grey on a rainy afternoon in October. And what is the first edifice to be built by any race to inhabit a new land? It is usually and always a Church, or a temple – in other words, a place of worship.

So here it was – the Dutch Reformed Church – standing tall against a rainy sky.

So, if you like me, love Europe, for all its cobble-stoned beauty, you would find yourself mesmerized by Galle. As holiday romances go, this is one such that you would want to keep coming back to. All of cobble-stoned Galle is lined with pretty little cafes, restaurants, knick-knack stores selling all sorts of things you don’t ever really need, but want (and how badly!!), and gems, of course (for which Sri Lanka is so famous). While I had the propensity of spending another half a day inside the Barefoot store at Galle, what really had me like a kid in a candy store was the ‘Stick No Bills’ Village poster store. (I have been a stationery addict for as long as I can remember!)

As atmospheric little seaside cobble-stoned towns go, there is little that compares to Galle. SO much so, that I decided to come back for one more day’s worth of stay, after Tangalle! And here’s where we stayed at – Fortaleza Hotel. What’s not to like about a hotel that has a cafe with distressed walls that look like this and a room with muslin mosquito nets hanging from a four poster and a porthole of a window?

Galle, you little charmer of a seaside town, you. You have me under your spell. Who says charm is the Irishman’s middle name? The title, you gentlemen, now belongs to Galle – undisputably.

And all of this made possible by my wonderful friend, and the intrepid little travel venture she leads, by the name of Wonderful world getaways

Blog reproduction from Mohana Talapatras blog at

The train was moving out of the station and there they were – waving goodbye. What was I doing, going off alone with a bunch of women I had never set eyes on before? But now it was too late to back out from this only-women trip to Khajuraho, Panna and Bandhavgarh organised by Wonderful World. An advertisement on Facebook two months ago had prompted me to sign up for it on a whim.

The group was split into two locations in the compartment, in an unequal ratio. The sound of laughter guided us to the larger group where we were invited to sit till it was time to sleep. A round of introductions later I was surprised to find myself at ease with these unknowns. They all seemed very much to be PLU (People like Us). This little group of nine women (one had dropped out at the last moment) had a loud voice, though! Our neighbours however, did not seem to be complaining…in fact, we made friends right away with two other women in the same compartment who were foreigners, immediately had an oops! moment, realising they could follow Hindi, and followed it up with an exchange of cards.
So, well begun is half done, they say. The chatter continued the next day when we reached the Ken River Lodge, about 25 kms away from Khajuraho. It was picture perfect! The dining area had a superb view of the river and was populated by friendly dogs, some abandoned, some stray. And out came the cameras-first for the cute doggies and only then for the view 🙂 The cottages were mud coloured and blended seamlessly into the overgrown jungle-like surroundings. But the insides were modern (thank God!), with facilities you’d find at any modern hotel and delicious food at every meal to boot!

And then we were off to see the temples. And they didn’t disappoint! The thousand year old temples build by the Chandelas had carvings on them that were so intricate we could see the folds in a dress and visualise each dancer. The group of temples remained hidden till the 19th century when a Britisher accidentally chanced upon it. The erotica of course seemed overrated and the few images we found were repeated in patterns. Being in a women’s only group kept the comments coming, though!

The evening saw us taking a boat ride on the river in the mellow evening sun which set in splendour. The river is home to crocodiles or magars but we were told that the water level being low, they had migrated upstream for the season. Nevertheless, we kept an eye out for the one that did not follow the crowd! The iridescent wings of the stork-billed kingfisher caught our eye as it flew past our boats as also a crow pheasant. A number of snake birds or cormorants could also be seen as well as herons and wagtails. We got off mid-river at a little rocky outcrop and what a view of the sunset it was! Cameras clicking away furiously, we tried to capture the beauty of nature.

Later in the night, while having our dinner out above the river, the subject somehow turned to ghost stories. Ajeet, the manager of the lodge, obliged us with some chilling tales. Sitting in the darkness (we had switched off the lights to discourage insects), listening to the night sounds of the wilderness with the river glistening below us in the moonlight, it was the perfect end to a lovely evening.
By the second day, the group had become comfortable with each other. The two sisters, the pretty one, the garrulous one, the silent one, the loud one, the granny with an attitude…we all had our mental pictures about each one. The plan was to visit the Panna sanctuary to try and see the tigers and be at Khajuraho for the dance festival in the evening. The group was in two jeeps in the cold morning as we entered the sanctuary. Friendly banter about who in the group would be our lucky charm to be able to spot the tiger kept us warm. The contest was between two ladies, both of whom had had tiger sightings multiple times. Luckily for us, both were in separate jeeps and both of us got to watch not only a tigress but two cubs too as bonus! Our luck held and we were able to see a croc also as well as two cute chinkaras. The good mood continued as we discovered we had a birthday girl in our midst! An impromptu cake and a terrace party with the gang were the highlights of the day. We tried to get a gift from the local village but discovered the markets were closed on account of elections but perseverance paid and we were able to get a locally made ghanti. The whacko idea of ringing the bell and singing “Tune maari entry aur dil mein baji ghantiyan..” was unique to say the least.

The evening saw us at the temples once again where we were treated to beautiful renditions of Bharat Natyam and Chhau/Kathak. The gentle evening with a balmy breeze, sitting in front of ancient temples that formed the backdrop for the performances left us mesmerised. And of course, a bit of souvenir shoppping kept our spirits up! Dinner at Raja Cafe rounded up a perfectly happy day.

And then it was time to move to Bandhavgarh for the final leg of our trip. We started leisurely and reached our home for the next two nights in the afternoon. And what a resting place! The King’s Lodge lived up to its name. The unobstrusive but luxurious surroundings in the midst of a carefully cultivated jungle took our breath away. And none of those buffet lunches; we were served at an enormous table and ate our fill of the most delicious foods. A little paddle pool near the entrance looked cool and inviting which everyone noted for later. Even the 500m walk to our respective cottages seemed exciting! Stories of tigers and leopards straying into hotel areas, sightings of snakes etc kept us on our toes while walking to the dining area in the night. The light of the lanterns hardly seemed enough.
The Gang of Girls became notorious with the other diners though for our uproarious laughs and loudness. The noisy game of guessing sun-signs, the heated no-holds barred debate on Amitabh Bachchan did not endear us to the rest of the visitors, I guess, but we were having so much fun it didn’t seem important enough.

After a night punctuated by jackal calls and owl hoots, it was at the crack of dawn that we were at the Bandhavgarh National Park. The lushness of the surroundings, the purity of the air and the flora were like soothing balms to our city sensibilities. The two jeeps again kept up the banter on who is going to be the lucky one but it turned out that neither of us were able to spot the great beast -the tiger. However, the spotted deer, the blossom headed parakeets and boars and an almost invisible sand grouse kept us entertained. The strangler vines, the ‘ghost’ gum tree and the stories of animal-human interaction added to the atmosphere.

A surprise awaited us that evening-dinner in the outdoors with a bonfire. What fun! And as the logs burned, songs were played and dance was done and as we moved towards the table, another surprise- a memento of the trip! A mug with our names printed on it and the Wonderful World logo on it, with a little note that said a few words about each of us and asked for our feedback on handmade paper. It was so sweet!

And it was almost time to go back. We were already feeling nostalgic – about Parul’s coffee press, Charu’s bandana, Vandy’s inimitable dancing style, Asha and her cat stories, Medha and Chandra-the two sisters, Rohini’s ghost imitation and most of all Shibani’s gentleness. The ride back to the station saw us exchanging numbers and forming a WhatsApp group, with promises to meet again.

I felt like Goldilocks-the group size was just right, the age group was just right too and the trip duration was the correct fit. Hats off to Wonderful World for getting it all correct. I now have a group of people I know much more about than so many of my so-called friends, I had a great time and went to all the places I wanted to. Looking back, I wonder why I had any misgivings in the first place!

madhya-pradesh tour

Great company, fun adventures….
The Journey

We were nine ladies – cutting across ages, cultures and cities but united in our determination to enjoy our little holiday together. We chose the night train to Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh for its convenience and by 8:30 we had set off.

Imagine a compartment full of enthusiastic strangers getting to know one another, snacking, assessing their sleeping arrangements and chatting up other travellers (hi Elisabeth and Antara) – all at the same time! I had been a little apprehensive at first about holidaying with strangers (I had never done that before) but was at ease very soon. Everyone was chatty and friendly.

By 9 the next morning we were packed into two Innovas. After some strategic jostling for the ‘best’ seats, we set off from Khajuraho for Panna. The easy camaraderie made way for colourful conversation on rurban India, lush mustard fields, milch cows and the quality of roads. After navigating an impossibly bumpy stretch, we reached our destination two hours after we set off from Khajuraho station.

Panna, Madhya Pradesh

The Ken River Lodge was a beauty. Think of a resort overlooking a river, tucked among a forest, boasting a tree which doubles up as a dining room and lounge bar. It was a stunning first exposure to nature for us city types.

We would go on to stay 2 nights in comfortable and large huts with noisy tin roofs, and pig out on impossibly delicious food – I still dream of the aloo puri breakfast. And I definitely can’t forget my new friends singing and dancing on my birthday. But the show stopper in Panna had to be the tigress and her family the following morning. We watched in quiet wonder as she majestically emerged from the forest, ambled up to the river with her two cubs and then lazed in the sun by the river bank before walking away. Life was wonderful after that – the pre-dawn start was so worth it, the morning cold didn’t matter any more, and the packed sandwiches never tasted better!

Khajuraho,Madhya Pradesh

The Chandela Rajput rulers clearly loved their temples because the dynasty kept contributing to this complex over a period of 250 years between the 10th and 12th centuries. Some 25 of the original 80 survive and they are dedicated to the Shaivite and Vaishnav schools of Hinduism and to Jainism.
The main (western) complex is easily explorable on foot with beautiful landscaped gardens. The temples themselves
are stunning examples of art, architecture, scientific prowess and local culture, depicting life as it was about a thousand years ago : We saw Gods, animals and human forms ; courtship and love making, war, music and dancing, wrestling and hunting.

Our extremely thorough guide informed us that only 10% of the carvings were erotic art. Yet, I was struck by the unabashed celebration of sex and womanhood. The kamasutra poses were prominently displayed at eye level on the main walls of the temples and panel after panel showed gorgeously proportioned female forms putting on makeup, doing their hair, playing games, tying and untying their girdles, playing musical instruments etc. Wish our self-styled guardians of Hindu culture could be equally chilled about the pursuit of pleasure and women’s role in society.

I should say that the temple town seems to relish its tourist appeal – there were plenty of souvenir shops, Internet cafes and restaurants, motels and hotels, guides and touts. The dance festival performances on our day in town were underwhelming as was the food at Raja Cafe. But what it lacked in food, it made up in ambience – we thoroughly enjoyed our evening under a neem tree in the courtyard.

Bandavgarh, Madhya Pradesh

Or Bandargarh as we may as well call it. We took two jungle safaris – in Magdhi and Tala zones – but lucked out both times and that too at a park where, they say, every visitor is guaranteed a sighting! We saw plenty of monkeys, and also deer (cheetal, chinkara and sambar) and birds, nilgai, sloth bear and wild boar. We dutifully followed the alarm calls of deer and monkeys and waited patiently (and silently) for the big cat to show up. We even sent up a few silent prayers but it wasn’t meant to be.

Yet, the safaris weren’t a total waste of time. Tala zone was very striking in its terrain and natural beauty: mostly plateaus and hills and copses of flaming palash trees. We saw the stunning ancient Shesh Shaiya statue of a reclining Vishnu and shivling, and the memorial to Charger – a legendary male tiger who earned his name after he charged at an elephant carrying tourists. He was fearless, apparently commanded the largest territory in the park and was quite the hit with the females. We booked our safaris through King’s Lodge where we stayed and the resort was perfect with luxurious rooms, very friendly staff, and delicious food.

Soon it was time to go home but each one us would have happily stayed on for a bit longer ….. in a Wonderful World of great company and fun adventures.

wonderful world Amritsar trip

I have to confess (sorry Shibani!) I was mildly apprehensive about the Amritsar trip. I have never travelled with a group of strangers before, mentally relegating it to the kind of thing that scarey cat people did, who were nervous about dealing with new things and places, whereas I liked to see myself as an intrepid traveller who ventured forth and did things.

However, I had always wanted to go to Amritsar and see the Waga border. And frolic amidst the mustard fields of the Punjab, which have always seemed a different country, known only through hearty images in films and ads. And the timing was perfect. And maybe I am a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to travelling with my son, so I signed up.

We all met at the station—four sets of mothers with accompanying children (the fifth set was flying in from Mumbai). And Shibani turned up—bulging minorly in front as she had Krishna, her one-plus son, in a sling and majorly at the back from a gigantic rucksack about four times the size of Krishna. The children, ranging in age from about six to twelve, eyed one another cautiously and decided that they would not be mortal enemies. The mothers sighed and put their feet up as the Shatabdi chugged out of early morning Delhi.

Many pretty mustard fields later, we reached Amritsar (the Shatabdi turns into a bit of a local train beyond Chandigarh) and hauled ourselves into taxis on the road to Punjabiyat, a drive punctuated by a fabulous meal at SK Dhaba. The butter naan had pools of butter; the alooparatha had pools of butter; the chholey had pools of butter—we knew we were in Punjab!

Punjabiyat is five quiet rooms—built as separate buildings—and a couple of common spaces, set amidst the farmland. It was almost eerily quiet for us city types, and almost equally beautiful in limpid green during the day and in the quiet pools of lamplight at night. There was a quick bullock cart ride for the kids after we reached, and a disco tractor to admire. And tea and pakoras. The rooms were gorgeous, with high beds, and the bathrooms were dreamy. The children bonded by the bonfire and in sessions of dark room, and the mothers drank quiet whiskies and wines and ate gargantuan meals. Yes, we were strangers but I guess women who go on holidays with their kids have a certain amount in common—financial independence and a disposition to travel on their own—and we bonded and laughed together after the kids went off to bed.

The following day was a buzz of activity. We went to the Golden Temple, ate at a dhaba and went to the Wagah border for the evening lowering of the flags, a bizarre and slightly disturbing ceremony.

The third day was a delightful slump of inactivity. We sat around, read, chatted. The children flew kites and made cow patties and ran through the fields. Desultory badminton was played. Random art happened. A few naps here and there. We luxuriated in doing nothing in the winter sun—surely, there is no greater pleasure!

And then a massive lunch in the woods later, it was sadly time to go back—on the Shatabdi with a bunch of very aggressive fellow passengers.

The trip was a perfect mix of activity and inactivity. Shibani organized enough stuff to keep us all entertained, but also left lots of time for us to hang around, which is surely the most delightful part of the holiday. The stay and food were gorgeous—and her impeccable handling of the red tape at the Wagah ceremony made our visit very smooth and trouble free. And I loved my fellow travelers—it was a great and entertaining group—and would love to go on holiday with them again!