27 March 2012

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore

Apparently, this temple, situated in Singapore's Chinatown, houses a tooth relic of Buddha's- which was said to be found in 1980 in Myanmar. That's the history I came across on this temple, and as I didn't visit the museum portion I can't say what was on display. But I did look inside the temple, which is fairly new. I'm not sure that I have ever been inside a Buddhist temple such as this. A different religion as it may be to me, I still found it very interesting to look around, see different rituals and reading about what these people believe. This temple was absolutely beautiful- you cant help but stand in awe at the architecture and sheer attention to detail in...pretty much everyting! Endless decoration, gold and ,in this temple's case, Buddhas...I definitely loved seeing some of the handiwork , art and color that goes into making these things. And somehow, it does help me appreciate my own beliefs more- seeing and being surrounded by other religions and beliefs. I'm glad for that... and I really am glad that I've had the opportunity to see what's outside my own California bubble (as well as the very westernized countries I've visited before.) As St Augustine said, " The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page."


26 March 2012

Singapore Esplanade

Touristy as it may be, one of my favorite places to go in Singapore was the Marina and its Esplanade. It's a short walk from the metro station and home to some of the iconic images of Singapore. Here, Christy and I saw the giant Merlion fountain- a symbol of Singapore, fish body representing the fishing village Singapore once was and a lion head representing "the lion city" or Singapura- the city's original name. It was so nice being by the water, especially in the midst of the city's humidity... even in the rain (or especially in the rain), it's so refreshing to walk around here. And to mine and Christy's surprise, a free music festival was going on the day we chose to walk around (the last day of the festival at that!) Early in the day, we saw some of the band's rehearsal before heading inside the adjoining mall (due to the rain)- a perfect time for some lunch and milk tea! (Salted Caramel Milk Tea! So delicious!) The Esplanade is a perfect place to see the sun set and watch the skyline light up... which is exactly what we did, simultaneously being treated to a light show and the music festival. We ended staying for the whole show, watching both the Malaysian punk band (with an amazing crowd!) and a Brazilian band. Definitely one of the best (free) ways to spend the day in Singapore!

23 March 2012

Sentosa Island - Singapore's Playground

I went out to Sentosa Island twice during my stay in Singapore. While it is possible to take a cable car out to the island, it's pretty pricey at $24 one way- so Christy and I opted for the cheaper alternative of taking the Sentosa Express. It's easily accessibly from the Harbourfront MRT station and only costs $3 for the round trip ticket. Approaching Sentosa, I definitely felt like this was Singapore's answer to Disneyland. It felt very touristy at first, which it is- what with Universal Studios Singapore, and other mini parks and aquariums you can visit. This was all a bit expensive for Christy and I, so instead we walked around the island, saw the Merlion statue in the center of Sentosa and headed for the (free!) beaches. We visited the Palawan Beach ( which had a lot less tourists and was further from the main shopping and eating areas) and Siloso Beach (which is more visited and closer to everything else.) It was really so nice to get away to a lazy island and spend the muggy day cooling off in the water, walking along the beach and enjoying refreshing drinks. So much so that Christy and I made a point of visiting the island (specifically for the beaches) a second time.

22 March 2012

The Easy Life in Singapore

Oh, Singapore! It was such a nice transition from India. India was amazing, but it was so nice to come to Singapore! The traffic was not so congested, the city was clean and organized and Christy and I could actually walk into shops and look at items without starting the haggling process. Our first couple of days were spent just getting used to the "reverse culture shock." (from India). We frequently went walking around Joo Chiat, the area we were staying in. We had quite a few good Asian meals before moving on to some meat! Our first beef in a month! We splurged on some Hard Rock Cafe hamburger and it was so worth it! I don't think beef has ever tasted as good. Christy and I discovered our love for milk tea in Singapore as well! Delicious tea drinks (of many colors and flavors!) enhanced by the creamy goodness of milk. My favorite was the Gong Cha Milk Black Tea- a yummy black tea with almost salty-like cream on top that should be mixed into the tea. We definitely treated ourselves to milk tea just about every day of the week that we were there. While in Singapore, the land of great and varied food, we decided to search down some Mexican food (as we've never experienced good decent Mexican food outside of North America. It took a little googling, but we found a place called Cafe Iguana in a touristy area that was actually pretty tasty. It was expensive as well, so Christy and I (being us) split the nachos- one of the cheaper items. Definitely not quite authentic, but still delicious and...good! Guacamole, cheese, tortillas, beans and sour cream hit the spot. So, that's the easy life in Singapore- we had heard it was all about the food and shopping here, and as we don't have any room in our backpacks for shopping, we decided to take part in the food aspect (in our own semi-frugal way!)

15 March 2012

Varanasi - India's Holy City

The last city Christy and I would be exploring in India- Varanasi- was completely unique unto itself. Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is supposed to be India's holiest. Hindus believe that if they come here and bathe in the Ganges river, all of their sins will be washed away. Our first morning here, we took a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges River, and it was such a surreal experience to be seeing all the ghats, the buildings along the river, the bathers, the temples in person. As a Christian, it did feel kind of odd in Varanasi with the huge emphasis on Buddhism, Jainism, etc. But, it was really neat to be part of the whole Varanasi experience - seeing the golden glow against the buildings as the sun rose, placing a lit candle in the Ganges (a ritual which didn't go so well for me- my candle getting hit by someone else's oar!), seeing some of the cremation process that takes place along the Ganges... it's a completely Varanasi experience. It was nice when Christy and I had the opportunity to just walk along the ghats the next day, seeing what there was to see, dealing with people trying to sell stuff (for the last time in India), sitting along the river...India truly is a crazy experience- all senses are heightened here- in both good and bad ways ( but mostly good!). I'll miss seeing the bright colors against the backdrop of India, the crazy tuk tuk rides (we never did hit anyone or get in an accident, although we had some close calls!)... But I think I shall be back- if nothing more than for an authentic Indian wedding! For now... On to Singapore! Let the adventure continue!

14 March 2012

Holi 2012. New Delhi Syle

Holi, the Festival of Colors took place on March 8, 2012. The basic legend of Holi goes that Prahlad, the son of Hiranyakashyap, was attempted to be killed by his aunt Holika because he would not worship his father. Holika entered a blazing fire with Prahlad on her lap (which she was supposed to be protected from), and due to her sinister desire, was destroyed in the flame. Prahlad was unscathed. Holi gets its name from Holika and celebrates the victory of good over evil. On this day, people celebrate by throwing colored powder at each other, mainly during the morning and early afternoon. It was so neat to see the streets just covered in every color imaginable, not mention all over the people! Christy and ventured out although we were a bit nervous- but hey, you are most likely in India for Holi only once! We had a blast getting just covered in greens, pinks, dark purples - made all the grosser from water! I especially loved some of the looks we received from employees upon returning to our hotel! Such an exciting and fun-filled day!

12 March 2012

Taj Mahal - At Long Last!

Oh my goodness- how to adequately describe what it felt like to actually visit the Taj Mahal? Somehow I imagined it might not be as incredible as it's made out to be since it is such an internationally famous landmark and since I, like pretty much everyone, have grown up seeing photos of the Taj Mahal. But upon first glimpse from the day before, squeals echoed throughout our bus. It feels like such a defining moment to finally lay eyes on a landmark, and masterpiece, such as this. Even the next day, on our official Taj Mahal day (with the whole sunrise experience and everything), I felt just as awestruck. It seems completely unbelievable - the different shades of white marble, the different depths and translucency of the marble create  a unique look and perfectly reflect the morning light rays. Even the colored inlays add to the the overall beauty and mystique of the Taj Mahal. 

It was incredibly interesting and fascinating to walk around the Taj and learn of the history and facts, such as how the Taj is built perfectly symmetrical and how the pillars are angled slightly out so that in case of earthquake, they would fall away from the Taj. Another interesting fact was how Emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal around 1632) also planned on building a second Taj Mahal in black onyx as a tomb for himself, across the river that lies behind the Taj. Obviously, this never happened, but the idea is both romantic and aesthetically beautiful. I really wanted to soak in my experience at the Taj Mahal and pretty much walked around for an hour in pure astonishment. (throwing in ridiculous Jade and Christy fun all the while, of course!). I still can't believe I've actually seen the Taj Mahal (and may never again) - unbelievable...

Agra's Red Fort

This huge city of a monument is located near to the Taj Mahal. It was founded by Emperor Akbar in 1565 and is largely built out of red sandstone. I mean, this place is massive. It's made up of many different palaces and seems to be a maze of architectural masterpieces, each with their own photographic beauty and stories. Perhaps the story I found most interesting was how Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, was apparently imprisoned here by his son. While imprisoned, he did have a view of his beloved Taj Mahal and is said to have died in the Musamman Burj tower, which also had a view of the Taj. While the Agra Fort didn't have the same over-the-top colors and ceiling as say, the Udaipur Palace or the Amber Palace, it still sends you into sensory overload what with amount of rooms and the sheer size and architectural details of the structures. Perhaps one of my favorite architectural details was the carvings on ceilings or pillars that very much resembled lace. Quite beautiful and delicate!

Baby Taj

The Baby Taj or Itmad-ud-Daula's Tomb is often thought of as the rough draft of the famous Taj Mahal. The Baby Taj was built around 1622 and marked the transition between different architectural styles- red sandstone being the once-preferred method to the style of using mainly white marble with colored inlay (as in the Taj Mahal). The Baby Taj is a perfect precursor to the big Taj, if experienced the other way around, the Baby Taj would pale in comparison. I absolutely loved going inside the Baby Taj though- I especially loved some of the ceilings with its different patterns and colors. I definitely started feeling some anticipation to see the "big Taj" though (as we had seen glimpses of it on the way). 

Fatehpur Sikri

Built around 1571 by Emperor Akbar, this palace complex was only inhabited by this Emperor until about 1585 when Akbar left to fight the Afghan tribes and find a new capital- Lahore. It was only ever inhabited by one other -Jahangir, who stayed here hoping to stay away from the plague that devastated Agra. Fatehpur Sikri is an incredible collection of buildings - residences for his wives, mosques, etc. I found the architecture to be quite unlike what we had seen throughout India thus far, yet I later noticed a few landmark locations in Agra had a similar style, including the beautiful brick red color.

11 March 2012

Abhaneri Stepwell and Harshat Mata Temple

On our drive from Jaipur to Agra, we stopped by this tiny little village called Abhaneri. From the streets, it's hard to imagine the wonder that is held inside. I couldn't quite remember what the Abhaneri stepwell was, but as soon as I laid eyes on the structure within, I instantly recognized it! Apparently, it is one of the largest and deepest stepwells in India, was built in the 9th century and has 3500 steps. As this location is very aesthetically pleasing, I had seen this stepwell before- including in films ( most notably The Fall, which includes a lot of locations throughout India- a truly stunningly beautiful movie!). I find it fascinating and wonder how those who have never heard, for instance, of the Abhaneri stepwell, would ever find this place from the unassuming exterior in this tiny little village.

Jaipur's Amber Fort

The Amber (or Amer) Fort is the highlight of a visit to Jaipur and it's not hard to see why. It was built in 1592 by king Raja Jai Singh and is situated perfectly to pick up a cool breeze throughout. It was quite astounding to stand in the Amber Fort's courtyard, watching the hoards of tourists being escorted in the Sun Gate by means of elephant, each beautifully decorated. Like many palaces Christy and I had visited throughout Rajasthan (most notably Udaipur's City Palace), the Amber Fort was full of intricate and colorful marble work. I absolutely loved some of the golden (amber?) arches- especially the ones that seemed to be outlined in black. Everything is so picturesque and somehow unlike anything you've seen before. While Jaipur's city center left a little something to be desired, the Amber Fort feels completely removed from the city and was truly an enjoyable and remarkable experience.

Jaipur: Bollywood Movies and Dress-Up

Jaipur is one of the largest cities in Rajasthan, so after a week or so of visiting smaller cities such as Ranakpur, Jojawar etc, it was quite a shock to hit a bit city again. Jaipur is called the "Pink City" because all of the buildings in the city center are made up of a very pink terracotta. While the buildings are beautiful to look at, I have to be honest and say that Jaipur was not my favorite destination in India. Christy and I had a chance to walk around the city, by the shops and such...and it was just madness! It's pretty much impossible to even look at a shop (for inexperienced hagglers such as ourselves). If you even glance at a shop's items, they harass you endlessly to come inside- even if you don't look at their items, shopkeepers will stand in your way, almost forcing you to go inside. And forget about window shopping or browsing, once inside a shop, it's almost impossible to leave without buying something as they won't take 'no' for an answer. I barely scraped by without purchasing something once, but it wasn't an altogether pleasant experience as I'm sure the guy felt insulted- but what can you do? Even the rickshaw drivers pester you to get into their rickshaw, pretty much following you, not taking 'no' for an answer.

But Jaipur does have some great architecture, and good times were had. One of my more pleasurable experiences in Jaipur was going to Jaipur's famous cinema hall, Raj Mandir. The movie of the night was a romantic comedy (Bollywood!), Tere Naal Love Go Haya. It was particularly hilarious because there were no subtitles, so many dialogue sequences were left to the imagination (luckily for us, our guide Aparna was handy for answering anything we might have been confused about after the movie.) Seeing a Bollywood movie in India is just as awesome of an experience as I was hoping it would be! The audience is completely different than Western audiences. People hoot and holler at witty dialogue, actors they like, or pretty much any emotion-worthy moment. They also use their "outside" voices when answering their phones (inside the theater)...quite a rowdy crowd, but it all adds to the experience! So much fun!
^ Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace- a masterpiece on the main street of Jaipur.

Pushkar Sunset

What better way to experience a sunset in Pushkar than to take a camel safari into the desert? It's like the whole "riding into the sunset" thing (I always think of the third Indiana Jones!), only slower and on a larger animal... This was my very first time on a camel, so it was a very exciting experience! Christy and I picked the tamest-looking of the two camels left when we arrived (we rode the same camel)- Satosi Ganesh. That was his name...Ganesh was his Hindi-given name, and Satoshi- the name Christy and I gave him before learning his real name. He was a quite nice camel while we were riding him, but once we got off, to admire the sunset for a bit, he didn't like us coming near him (he must have known we're trouble makers!). I have to say, it was SO scary being on the camel for the first 5 minutes or so, but once you settle into the camel's movements, it was not bad at all- in fact, I loved it! Satoshi treated us well (I can't say so much for some of our fellow travelers- some camels wandered off or started trotting..). Riding a camel isn't so bad- its the fear of getting off! (they jerk forward and backward as they sit/get up!). But, seriously, is there a better time to take a camel safari than when in the Indian Desert!

Jojawar - Tucked Away in Rajasthan

Perhaps one of the more special moments spent in Rajasthan was our visit to Jojawar. Similar to Ranakpur in that it is set apart from the major tourist attractions, Jojawar is a tiny little village that we were able to walk around in 15 minutes or so. It's impossible to walk down the street without being bombarded by about 10 children, all asking your name and your country. (Many will try to ask for money, chocolate or pens- but as a fellow tour member found out... It is unwise to give to one, as all will want the same. Plus, as we've noted throughout India, it's more meaningful to give to a child who is actually doing something -we saw a magician,etc- than to give to a child who is just begging.) I loved seeing all the colors of the buildings, the different shops, the women in saris- it was great to wander around a small, less crowded village like Jojawar. And our hotel (more like heritage hotel and once-fort for the royals), Rawla Jojawar was a beautiful property and luxurious stay, complete with refreshing drinks and showering with flower petals upon arrival. My stay here was short, but a great one!

10 March 2012

Gem of India - Udaipur City Palace

Oh, the Udaipur City (or winter) Palace! This complex of palaces was so spectacular and amazing! I thought Florence had some insanely intricate, colorful and over-the-top ceilings (and it does!), But Florence ceilings and architecture pale in comparison to Udaipur. Every color of the rainbow, colored glass, mirror, gold, etc etc etc are present in the Udaipur palace. As I'm sure you know, India is not shy in paring the oddest colors together- reds, greens, golds, blues, oranges, yellows...all in the same palate. Gotta love it! This palace complex was built by Maharana Udai Singh in 1559 and is considered the largest of its type in Rajasthan, fusing the Rajasthani and Mughal styles (quite well, at that). The Udaipur Palace is a shock to the senses- its a lot of stunning architectural and stylized details to take in. After an hour and a half or so, it seems almost impossible to absorb any more. I absolutely loved Udaipur and its palaces, and if given the choice of staying longer in India, I think I would choose to spend that time in Udaipur.

A Day in Udaipur

Oh, what to write about Udaipur... Possibly one of my favorite spots in India. I found Udaipur very refreshing with the huge lake and its surrounding palaces; the shopping and sightseeing was very accessible- many things within walking distance.  I just really liked the atmosphere of Udaipur and had some great experiences here! Not to mention our palace of a hotel! On our first night here, we got to go to a beautiful cultural dance performance. There were all kinds of dancing, beautiful outfits and even a lady piling about 12 pots onto her head! Talk about skill!

09 March 2012

Kumbhalgarh Fort

Just outside of Udaipur, is the amazingly expansive and massive Kumbhalgarh Fort. It's situated 110 meters above sea level and is an insanely steep walk to the top of the fort. It was incredible just how much of surrounding Rajasthan you could see! This fort was built during the 15th century and was occupied until the 19th century- it was also the birthplace of the great king of Mewar, Maharana Pratap. Perhaps just as amazing as this beautiful fort and view was witnessing two of our traveling buddies being interviewed for Indian TV, pretty much just saying what the newscasters wanted them to say. Future Bollywood stars in our midst...

08 March 2012

Ranakpur Village Hike

While staying in Ranakpur, aka the middle of nowhere, we had the opportunity to take a hike in the surrounding hills to visit some of the villages. These villages were a lot more far removed than I had originally thought, which made it all the better! We got to visit one family's home and try out some of their daily chores like grinding grain and churning milk. These people were incredibly kind and generous and the kids were some of the cutest, sweetest kids I've ever seen! It was so incredibly to see these people's houses and imagine living in a place such as this- it's such a departure from everything that we know as Westerners. Getting away from touristy India and seeing the way of life for many Indians was definitely a highlight for me- seeing the waving, smiling faces of the children, the brightly colored saris of the women (out in the middle of nowhere) and their lives was completely fascinating and something that was incredibly beautiful to experience and be a part of.

06 March 2012

Ranakpur Jain Temples

On our way to Ranakpur, we stopped by the Ranakpur Jain Temples. Jainism is an Indian religion that pretty much teaches non-violence and strives for the soul to achieve divine consciousness and liberation, free from inner enemies. The main temple is a huge structure comprised of 1444 intricately carved pillars, built around a large tree at the center of the temple. The architecture of the outside of this temple very much reminded me of some of the temples Christy and I will hopefully soon be seeing in Cambodia. The temple experiencinks quite interesting in India...you still can't get away from people, even "priests" following you - trying to explain the history of the temple, "pray" for you or give you a blessing in exchange for a large tip. Some of our fellow travelers had been pressured into giving tips to these "priests" who are already well paid, and I have to say- it was hilarious to see our fearless tour leader storm into the temple to give the "priest" a piece of her mind. A brawl was about to break out in the middle of this temple, but after it all, we realized just how much our guide Aparna was looking after us, making sure our experience of India was a spectacular one!

05 March 2012

Chandur Palace

On our way to Ranakpur from Jodhpur, we stopped at Chandur Palace in the middle of a tiny village- a place where they rarely see foreigners. It was a little amusing to see the looks our group ( a bunch of white Brits/Americans/Canadians) got. Locals would stare curiously, while most children would smile and wave. The children were the cutest- running outside of their houses or running to get their friends to get a glimpse of the group of foreigners. We walked through part of this tiny village to reach the palace where we would be able to explore and have a bit a lunch. We had quite the welcome too- being showered with flower petals from above as we entered inside the palace, receiving a bindi (red dot blessing on the forehead) and flower necklace. The people here were incredibly friendly and welcoming, inviting us into their home! Yes, we met some of the people that now reside here and it was especially interesting to talk to one of the women who married into this lifestyle. This was a unique and fun experience- outside of the typical tourist activities.

03 March 2012

Overnight train to Jodhpur

Taking the overnight train to Jodhpur wasn't as scary as I first imagined. While the journey was long (12 hour) and the beds were hard and only private due to a curtain, the ride was very quiet (that is, after we crazy Brits/Americans finally went to bed!) and it was quiet a smooth ride. In fact, I'd take 12 hour train ride over a 12 hour plane ride any day. And the toilets! I had feared them so, but they were completely fine - not exactly the cleanest, but not the dirtiest I've seen either! Anyway, I slept most of the way to Jodhpur, though still not completely ready to tackle the day once I got there.

02 March 2012

Jama Masjid and Humayun's Tomb

My first full day of exploration in New Delhi was quite productive. Christy and I met up with our G Adventures group and set out into the city, ready to take on the New Delhi metro. While the metro is quite crowded, with every local staring at you, the metro was quite as difficult to overcome as I first had thought. There is a separate compartment for the ladies and the subway comes frequently. During rush hour though, it was very hard to find space to even get on the subway, let alone trying to squeeze through the crowds to try to get out! But, our group was successful and we walked many small alleyways and residential areas with our guide, getting a small taste of what India is all about. Our first major attraction was Jama Masjid, a mosque with amazingly beautiful architecture! It's required for the ladies to wear these floral overcoat type dresses, which made exploring even more fun. I was awestruck, finding myself actually in India- it still doesn't feel quite real!
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