I travel solo quite often for various reasons. While an Indian woman travelling by herself for leisure still often elicits some surprise/shock/concern from others, I’ve never let that bother me. In fact I believe that solo travel has made me better in many ways. I travel solo at least once a year, more if possible.
This is what I believe happens, when you start to travel solo
After the initial discomfort of being all by yourself, you move on to being able to enjoy your own company and the pleasures of being the sole decision-maker for your holiday plans. Want to capture a sunrise? Go for it! Prefer to spend the morning lazing at a café instead of visiting a museum? Sure, whatever you like!
You become a lot more confident. Travel can bring along with it missed connections, lost belongings, budget issues, security concerns and lot of other things. Dealing with it all and still having a good trip teaches you that you are stronger and smarter than you think you are. You learn to trust your gut.
You start getting to know yourself better. With nobody else’s preferences to worry about, you can plan your trips just the way you want to. In the process you learn more and more about your own likes and dislikes and what makes you happy. You also figure out things like how good a communicator you are, what your travel style is, what are the things you have trouble dealing with, and so on.
Gradually your perspective on life begins to change. When you go out into the world, meeting and talking to people, learning about different places and cultures, you realise what is superficial and what really matters in life.
You learn that there are a lot of good people out there, and travelling alone does not necessarily mean not having folks to chat with. All you need is a willingness to smile and communicate.
You realise that your fears about travelling alone were mostly unfounded, and that you’ve ended up actually having a great time.
Maybe now you can see why I travel solo so often! If you have not tried solo travel yet, go ahead and give it a shot. Be sure to let me know about it!
This is the first post in the Foodie Friday series. I hope to make it a regular one. This post is about a foodie-delight city called Amritsar. Amritsar, apart from being the home of the revered Golden Temple, is also an absolute heaven when it comes to Punjabi cuisine. I recently had the good fortune of spending a day and a half here with my parents. While the primary aim of the trip was a visit to the Temple, the side attractions of various food outlets that we tried out were equally enticing!
So here’s a quick run-down of the places I tried out (too many on the list were left out due to paucity of time and inability of the system to handle so much food):
Gian Chand Lassi – Delicious lassi served in metal tumblers, topped off with butter and cream. People struggle to finish one serving, and once done, you are sorted hunger-wise for hours together. They also have something called “pede waali lassi” where they add bits of sweet pedas to the lassi! Located near the Temple in the narrow market lanes.
Bharawan da Dhaba – The place to have a vegetarian meal in Amritsar. While my parents raved over the dal and bharta and the crisp tandoori rotis, I went straight for the one thing I wanted here – the onion kulcha thali! The kulchas were hot, crisp, nicely stuffed and accompanied by some very delicious chholey. While most people head to the outlet near the Golden Temple, we went to the newer branch at Ranjit Avenue. Comfortable seating, good ambience, decent service. My dad still remembers this meal fondly!
Kanha Sweets – The Sunday brunch here is legendary – a fixed menu of pooris, potato curry and chholey. The potato curry is like nothing you would ever have tasted before – tangy and sweet-spicy. It’s a challenge to stop at two pooris, and you will definitely ask for refills of potato curry as well as chholey. Don’t go here for ambience, there’s none – just focus on the amazing food! The sweet shop outside also sells a variety of traditional mithai (sweets), of which the most famous seemed to be the pinnis. After having eaten one, I could see why.
Prasaad at the Temple – While the Gurudwara visit was not food-centric at all, I cannot help but mention the kara prasaad here. It’s one of the best suji halwas you will ever have, and even though we were not able to join the Langar, I am glad I could have this famous prasaad and be blessed.
Lubhaya Ram – Different from the Ram Lubhaya shop, this is a small kiosk under a tree near the Girls’ College on Lawrence Road. We tried out a range of delicious aam papad, choorans and interesting mouth fresheners before settling on a few to buy. Worth a visit if you’re there. Chef Vikas Khanna’s list of food recos for Amritsar includes this little cart.
I realise the list is way too short given the scores (hundreds?) of amazing food joints in Amritsar. Unfortunately we barely had 24 hours, and of course being vegetarian means that I did not try any of the fish and meat dishes that I’ve heard people rave about. A second visit (soon, I hope) would be needed in order to scratch the surface further.
What are your favourite places to eat in Amritsar?
Getting there: Most airlines now fly to Amritsar; there are also multiple convenient Shatabdi trains at different times of the day.
Stay:We stayed on Ranjit Avenue – good restaurants around, calm and quiet, and only a short Ola ride away from the bustle of the old town.
If you are planning a visit and looking for tips on places to visit in Amritsar, then Shivani at The Wandering Core has some helpful tips here, take a look.
“Photo? Take my photo?” he says, walking after us as we stroll towards the bridge on the Betwa. I oblige, and the sadhu baba gives me a beatific smile. I wonder if money is now expected, realise I’m not carrying any cash to give him and say something to that effect. He smiles and says, “Beta I will never ask you for that.” I feel ashamed to have suggested it.
This small town has more than its share of saffron-clad men and women, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise because this is after all basically a temple town. Jhansi, the closest big city, is a mere 25 minute drive away – but the difference is dramatic. Orchha is small and still retains the innocence of a place untouched by the hectic nature of modern life. Oh sure you have the Tata Sky dishes and motorbikes and even – so I hear – a local radio station. The market has signboards advertising Italian cuisine, B&B’s and shops selling kitschy souvenirs. But the pace of life here is slower, gentler. The locals in the market all seem to know each other. Life revolves around the temples and the daily aartis. Nobody hurries, nobody has deadlines. Nearly everybody has a smile on the face.
A group of young boys watches as Christine and I walk across the bridge, get some shots of the Chattris , and walk back – just about managing to escape being pushed into the river by a truck that has rumbled too close past us. When we reach them, one of the boys shyly asks if we’d like to share a soft drink. We smilingly refuse and continue on our way.
Orchha is a medieval town, established in the early 16th century by a Bundela king . The palaces and temples of Orchha are reason enough to visit, especially if you are a history buff like me. The fort here has a number of palaces built during various periods of its history; Jahangir Mahal for example was built as a welcome gift for the Mughal emperor Jahangir when he visited. There is also a Sound and Light show held here every evening which acts as a good introduction to the history of the town, though a touch melodramatic.
There are many famous temples in Orchha but to me perhaps the best sight here were the cenotaphs (Chattris) standing in a row like brooding sentinels; these riverside memorials to former rulers are now in ruins and still starkly beautiful. I stand and watch the sun disappear behind them.
At night, the stars come out. Standing by the river I look up and try to identify constellations. I think I see Orion. I know for sure that it’s been a long time since I saw so many stars in the night sky. The night is quiet, peaceful and I could well be all alone – except for the half-full hotel just behind me.
We decide to attend morning Aarti before leaving Orchha. The Ram Raja temple is the only temple of its kind – Ram is worshipped here not as a deity but as a king. In deference to his royal status, a pair of cannons is posted at the entrance of the temple. Sentries are on guard duty outside and inside. We go in, a few minutes before the morning Aarti is to begin. The temple courtyard is full mostly of locals, who from the looks of it seem to be regulars here. There are of course also a few gawking tourists like us. I have a vague sense of unease, feeling like an intruder – I never visit temples if I can help it – but I soon start feeling better. Finally the sanctum doors are opened and the Aarti begins; the devotional song being sung is one that I’ve never heard before, but the entire congregation seems to know it well. They sing loudly, un-selfconsciously, with all their hearts. A mother picks up her toddler son to allow the priest to touch his forehead in blessing. An old man is getting a wedding card blessed by Ram Raja. The hymn goes on, soothing yet cheering. I look around. I feel tears running down my face that I can’t stop. And finally, after years of declaring I don’t believe in prayers, I find myself saying one….
(Written in 2011 and published on an earlier blog. Migrated here now)
There is so much beauty and history in Edinburgh that you can spend days getting to know your favourite parts of it. Here’s my list of the Top 10 interesting things to do in Edinburgh if you are visiting Scotland for the first time:
1. Free Walking Tour: The tour starts from the Starbucks on the Mile and lasts about 3 hours. The guides pepper the facts with humour, making it overall a fun tour. They work for tips only. The tour will give you the general layout of the town, and also acquaint you with the legends and celebrities connected with the city. You would probably see the St Giles Church, the Elephant Café (where JK Rowling used to write before becoming JKR), the Heriot School (inspiration behind Hogwarts), the Writers Museum, Princess Street Gardens etc.
2. Ghost Tour: This one is usually a paid tour and full of drama and gory stories, as expected. You will also be taken to the cemetery and on to Calton Hill, from where you can get a lovely view of the city below as well as a Parthenon-style incomplete Monument.
3. Visit Edinburgh Castle: Located on top of Castle Hill, the 12th century castle is the result of years of building, rebuilding and renovation. I am glad I paid extra for the audio guide, it’s of a high quality and allowed me to explore at my own pace. You can easily spend an entire morning wandering around here. This is probably one of the most popular things to do in Edinburgh.
4. Climb Arthur’s Seat: If you have a reasonable level of fitness, climbing up to Arthur’s Seat can be a fun activity. It is an extinct volcano and Edinburgh’s highest hill, offering fantastic views. Early morning or evening would probably be the best time to go.
5. Walk the Royal Mile: The lower part of the Mile especially Canongate is a nicer area than the upper half, less crowded and touristy. You just have to veer off into any of the narrow lanes leading off the main road and you find yourself in beautiful little residential areas with gardens and flower-boxes in the windows and that kind of thing.
6. Party at the Grassmarket: If you ask at your hostel or hotel about popular things to do in Edinburgh, this would probably be high up on the list. Grassmarket in the Old Town is a vibrant and lively area full of pubs and restaurants. You can choose to pub crawl, or have a casual dinner with friends, or sit in the central square and people-watch.
7. Try the local food: Popular Scottish dishes include Haggis (minced liver, heart and lungs of a sheep mixed with oatmeal, onion and spices) usually eaten along with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). I was lucky enough to find a vegetarian version of the dish at The Last Drop pub. You can also try Black pudding, Leek and Tattie soup, Scotch pies, shortbread, sticky toffee pudding and the fabled deep fried Mars bars!
8. Take a tour to the Highlands: I took a three-day backpacker’s coach tour to the Highlands and Skye from Edinburgh, and it was just amazing. If you prefer you can hire a car and drive yourself. The highlands are beyond scenic, and you will find some great photo ops everywhere you go. More detailed post on this part, to follow someday soon!
9. Visit a distillery: Lovers of Scotch whisky cannot miss this. A number of companies run tours from Edinburgh to various local distilleries, covering the history and process of whisky production with tastings thrown in.
10. Cultural immersion in New Town: New Town on the other side of the bridge can be termed the cultural hub of the city. It has some highly rated museums such as the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, etc. New Town also has The Edinburgh Playhouse, the largest working theatre in the UK, which routinely stages musical productions.
I hope this list will someday help someone out there who is planning a trip to beautiful Edinburgh. To me, it was a walk down memory lane just putting this together. More posts to follow soon, on my tour to the Highlands and the Isle of Skye!
I love travelling solo. Why, you might ask. I have listed a few reasons here. This post though is about my first solo trip, which happened in the summer of 2010. I travelled to London, stayed with a friend for a couple of days and then took a week’s trip (alone) to Scotland. It turned out to be one of my most memorable trips ever.
How it began
Early on a June morning I took the morning train out of King’s Cross to Edinburgh. The journey takes about 4 hours, and the trains are very comfortable. The train was also a great way to see more of the countryside, which was truly beautiful. I realised that all the cliches I’d read about were true: rolling meadows, cows in peaceful pastures, picture-book cottages and houses with sloping shingled roofs.
Finally getting to Scotland was both exciting and scary. I didn’t know a single soul there, had never travelled alone this far from home, and had no idea what lay in store. So yeah, there were definitely some butterflies in my tummy as the train pulled into Waverley station. It was overcast and a drizzle started up almost immediately; luckily the hostel I had booked was just a 5 minute walk away.
Edinburgh the Medieval Beauty
My first evening in Edinburgh was also the day I fell in love with the city. Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town and the 18th century mostly Georgian New town are both World Heritage Sites, and one can spend days just exploring them. I stayed in the city for three days here and spent hours just walking everywhere.
On this first evening I was still too jet-lagged to do much, so I just took an exploratory walk up the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is a cobblestoned street connecting the Castle with the Holyrood Palace. It actually measures about a 100 yards more than a mile. The part of it closest to the castle is where you will find most of the souvenir shops, restaurants, T shirt sellers, and all the usual suspects. But it is still an interesting walk, with medieval buildings on both sides and dozens of narrow alleys (called Wynds or Closes) leading off from it. Go down any of these wynds and you never know what you might find. A part of the Mile is pedestrian-only.
I also walked across Waverley bridge to the New Town side of things, and took a look at the Monument, the Royal Academy, the adjacent National Gallery, the Mound etc. Old Town and New Town used to be divided by the Nor Loch – the town’s water supply/sewage dump. This was eventually drained and converted into a beautiful green area called the Princes Street Gardens. It’s a great place to sit and people-watch. You also get great views of the Castle, and some decent ice cream!
By the time I finished my walk it was around 8pm, and it was still bright and sunny. To somebody used to night setting in by 7-7.30 pm in summer, it was strange at first to see dusk extending as late as 10pm here. It was a little disorienting, especially since all shops and cafes shut by 6pm.
My first day in Scotland turned out great. I managed the train connections safely, found myself in a beautiful city, and made friends with my hostel roommates, Amanda and Melissa. After three days exploring Edinburgh I continued into the Highlands and Skye. More on that, later! In the meantime, if you are planning to visit Edinburgh anytime soon, do check out this list of top things to do.
Getting there: Edinburgh is well connected by flight, train and National Express coach services
I’ve been meaning to write this post since my visit to Phuket over a year ago. When I visited I was with a group of friends and had no idea what to do or where to go – so I just went along with all the others! I now know a little bit more, and can share that little bit with those in a similar situation 🙂
Contrary to what the first-time visitor might imagine, there is a lot more to Phuket than the famous Patong beach and Phuket/Patong nightlife. Granted that the nightlife is a major draw for most visitors, but here are some other suggestions on things a visitor can also enjoy in Phuket:
Boat trips – Tons of options are available for day trips on speedboats or larger cruise boats to neighbouring islands and beaches. If you are not planning to stay at Phi Phi, a boat trip to see Maya bay might interest you. If you only have time for one excursion, I would recommend the excursion to Pha Nga bay instead. The boat will take you to this impossibly scenic bay and the famous James Bond island, and later give you an opportunity for canoeing and swimming off a secluded beach. A good lunch is usually included.
2. Spas – Thailand is known for spas, and there are some really great ones in Phuket offering massages, scrubs, foot rubs etc. at really decent prices. After a hectic day out, a good foot and back massage can be just what you need, before a night of partying!
3. Beaches – Naturally, you cannot be in Phuket and not spend time at the beach. The most commonly known beach is Patong of course, but for the same reasons it can also be crowded. If you prefer a quieter, calmer beach experience then head to Kata or Karon beaches. I loved the sunset at Karon. Kamala and Nai Yang beaches are also recommended.
4. Street food – Try some of the local food being sold by roadside vendors. You will find delicious fruits, pancakes with a variety of fillings, soups, noodles, seafood and a host of other interesting dishes being sold very cheap. Be as adventurous as you like!
5. Heritage tours – If you are the kind (like me) who likes to learn something about the history and culture of the place you are visiting, this one is for you. The Old Town of Phuket still has beautiful examples of Sino-Colonial architecture – buildings dating mostly from before the second World War. These include old merchant mansions, shops, gardens, hotels etc, and are best seen on a walking or bicycle tour of the Old Town.
6. Adventure – For those seeking an active holiday, there is no dearth of interesting options in Phuket. You could go white water rafting, scuba diving, take a bicycle or ATV ride into the countryside, try ziplining or even river canoeing.
Getting There: Phuket can be reached from Bangkok via flight (most convenient) or by bus (cheapest, but a 12-ish hour ride).
One part of India that I had not visited at all in my years of travelling, was the north-eastern states. I finally broke that jinx by visiting Meghalaya, the predominantly tribal state carved out of Assam in the 1970’s. After my wonderful trip to Meghalaya in the height of the rains, I am now convinced that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji, the two most important places to see in Meghalaya. It seemed right to be visiting the wettest place on earth, in the middle of the monsoon season! I’m now a huge fan of Meghalaya’s natural beauty, and would love to share with you a little information about the places to visit in Shillong and Cherrapunji.
Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a busy little foothill town with the usual urban paraphernalia of shopping centres, cafes, schools, markets, even traffic jams. However, if you take the time, you will also find charming places of interest in Shillong that will show you what this town might have been like a few years ago before the spread of urbanisation. There are some very pretty churches in town, and a lake called Ward’s Lake where you can go for a stroll. The town also has a few very nice cafes that play great music, and I enjoyed chilling out at some of them. In the military cantonment area, you will also find a pretty waterfall called the Spread Eagle Falls.
Outside Shillong, in the midst of nature, is where you will really see the true beauty of Meghalaya. “Meghalaya” means “abode of clouds” in Sanskrit; whoever coined the name must have visited during the monsoon! I found myself enveloped more than once in clouds of mist during the drive from Shillong to Cherrapunji and back. The distance from Shillong to Cherrapunji is only 50km but since it’s a hilly route the drive will take 2.5 to 3 hours one way. It is a really scenic route though, and you will enjoy the drive. Since there are limited options of hotels in Cherrapunji, most visitors cover Cherrapunji sightseeing in a day-trip from Shillong.
Aside from the fact that it was once the district with the highest recorded rainfall in the world (this position is now held by Mawsynram, also nearby), Cherrapunji or Sohra as it called locally, also offers amazing views of nature in all its grace. Places to visit in Cherrapunji include the Wah Kaba Falls, Dainthlen Falls, Eco Park, Nohkalikai Falls and the Seven Sisters Falls. I believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because the highlight of this area – the waterfalls – are at their peak during the rains. The pictures do not do justice to the beauty that I was witness to.
Meghalaya also has a large number of limestone and sandstone caves; cavers from all over the world visit in order to explore them. One of the places to visit in Cherrapunji is Mawsmai, which has limestone caves that are open to tourists. The stalactites and stalagmites are indeed imposing to see. The world’s longest sandstone cave has also recently been discovered near here in Mawsynram.
Two other interesting places to see in Meghalaya are Mawlynnong and Dawki. You can either stay overnight at a homestay in Mawlynnong or take a day-trip from Shillong combining both places. Mawlynnong is known as the cleanest village in Asia, and after seeing the place I didn’t really doubt the title. From here you can easily get to the nearby Living Root Bridge in Riwai. Living root bridges are natural bridges found in a few places in Meghalaya and are one of the most important places to see in Cherrapunji and around. Locals would take the roots of Indian Rubber trees, and train and weave them into a mesh. They would then plaster the mesh with mud and stones to form a natural bridge, allowing people to cross over streams. Ingenious idea, and the bridges are still going strong. Be prepared for a hike up and down several steps though!
Dawki is about 100km from Shillong and you can easily combine a visit here with a Mawlynnong excursion. It offers scenic views of the Umngot river and the India-Bangladesh border. Outside the monsoon season, the river is very popular for boating. It is said that the water here is the clearest you will find anywhere in the country.
Flights to Shillong are only available on Air India from Kolkata and tend to be very expensive. Instead, fly to Guwahati. Guwahati to Shillong is an easy 2-3 hour drive; you can either take a shared cab that will cost you around Rs. 300 per person and drop you at Police Bazaar, or hire a private taxi and have the comfort of stopping en route as you wish. I had hired a private cab for the duration of my trip.
Getting around Shillong and Cherrapunji:
Local cabs charge more or less flat fares for Shillong sightseeing and day-trips to Cherrapunji. A private cab would probably cost you Rs 1800-2000 for local sightseeing in Shillong, and Rs 2500-3000 for a day visit to Cherrapunji. Your hotel can also probably arrange transportation for you if you ask in advance.
Hotels in Shillong:
Shillong has hotels to suit nearly all budgets. However, I would recommend that you try and avoid staying in the Police Bazaar area unless you want to be stuck in traffic all day. It would be much better to stay in the Laitumkhrah area, which is what I did. One big plus of being there was that I was within walking distance of the famous Cafe Shillong! If budget allows, go for Ri Kyinjai which is a resort near Umiam lake and is considered one of the best hotels in Shillong. I was, unfortunately, on a more modest budget.
Meghalaya is a must-visit destination in India that offers natural beauty, offbeat experiences and an opportunity to get away from the concrete jungle. The people you meet here will, in general, be really warm and friendly, and you will feel welcome wherever you go. I know that I will be going back someday soon! If you’d like to learn more about the state, you should visit the official website of Meghalaya Tourism, it’s extremely detailed and helpful.
Visiting a green hilly destination during the rains makes it feel even more magical. I also believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because unlike summer vacations when everything is over-run with tourists, this time there were relatively fewer crowds. Always a plus as far as I am concerned!
Travel during the rainy season in India has its pros and cons. On a trip during this season one needs to be prepared for a more leisurely vacation, since sightseeing would become weather dependent. However there is a lot to be said in favour of quiet getaways where one can just kick back and relax, without the pressure of ticking off “must do’s”. Enjoy the weather and simple pleasures like walks in the rain, endless cups of tea and conversations with your loved ones. Here are some ideal places that can be picked for a quick monsoon getaway:
1. Kumarakom – The backwaters of Kerala are pretty all the year round, but the rain lends an added touch of solitude and romance. Take advantage of off-season rates at hotels, and book yourself into a lakeside resort for a couple of days of relaxation involving Ayurveda treatments, amazing local cuisine and gorgeous sunsets.
2. Udaipur – The “City of Lakes” becomes greener and prettier during the rains, with the lakes looking their best ever. Enjoy breathtaking views from vantage points like the Monsoon Palace and City Palace, and take a relaxing boat ride on Lake Pichola.
3. Goa – Goa in the rains offers a distinctly different experience. Take long walks along rain-swept beaches, enjoy a drink at one of the many watering holes, and party the night away at a club. While many of the temporary shacks along the beaches close down during the monsoon, this also means fewer people around!
4. Kodaikanal – Kodaikanal in the rains looks really green and washed clean. The misty hills and gushing waterfalls offer a very scenic view during this season, if you are up to getting soaked now and then. Perfect weather for invigorating walks and steaming cups of tea!
5. Mahabaleshwar – If you want a quick break from chaotic urban life and are not too keen on running around sightseeing, a monsoon break in Mahabaleshwar might be just the right thing for you. The rain in these hills can be torrential, keeping the tourist hordes away, but offering beautiful landscapes and a peaceful stay.
6. Orchha – This sleepy little town on the banks of the Betwa river is full of old palaces and temples that you can explore at leisure. The monsoon brings cool temperatures and fewer crowds, always a plus. Do attend morning Aarti at the Ram Raja temple.
7. Ladakh – This is for those who wish to escape the monsoon downpour, since Ladakh typically sees dry weather during these months. You will enjoy the warm sunny days and cool evenings, and have the added advantage of being cut off from mobile networks once you get out of Leh town! Keep aside at least 5-6 days for the trip, since you would need some time to acclimatise to the altitude.
There is something magical about sunrises. Wherever on earth you may be, watching the light change slowly around you as the sun comes up and the world slowly comes to life, can be a soul satisfying experience. The effect gets magnified if you are watching this in the vicinity of one of the “alternative” wonders of the world.
Anyone who has been to Siem Reap will tell you, you can’t miss watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Get a tuktuk man to drive you over at the unearthly hour of 4.30 am; any later than that, and you won’t be able to find a good “seat” for the show. Find a nice comfortable spot in the grass near the lily pond, where you will get the best view.
Since a picture can speak a thousand words, here is what it looks like