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Craig & Jeane 2010 Trip Report: Varanasi, Udaipur & Aurangabad + Bangkok

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Feb 28th, 2010, 07:14 AM
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Craig & Jeane 2010 Trip Report: Varanasi, Udaipur & Aurangabad + Bangkok

WHY INDIA AGAIN?

By way of introduction, Jeane and I are experienced travelers in our mid-50's. Our first trip to Asia was Thailand in 2000. With a couple of exceptions, we have returned to Asia 2-1/2 weeks at a time, each year since then. We have visited Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bali and Vietnam. Our first trip to India was in 2005. While it was a good first exposure to India, we barely scratched the surface of this huge country, visiting Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Ranthambore (Park). We knew that if we did nothing else in India, we needed to return to visit the holy city of Varanasi. Since almost all of our Asian trips have begun or ended in Bangkok, I started our planning this year by looking at the daily Thai Airways flight between Bangkok and Varanasi. The flight operates in the winter months only, so it worked out for us in February. Based on the experiences of a couple of other prominent Fodorites - Kathie and dogster, we decided to add 8 days in Nepal to our itinerary and finish up with 3 days in Bangkok. It was not to be – about a month before we were scheduled to depart, we started to hear about frequent strikes or “bandhs” that were occurring regularly all over the country. During these strikes, areas of Nepal were effectively shut down – no commerce, no taxi's, no services. We heard about protesters stationed at key intersections setting cars of those that did not honor the strike on fire. We heard about tourists unable to make it to the airport. We decided to change our plans at pretty much the last minute.

Since we already had our visas, the logical thing to do was to explore more of India. After considering airfares and times and consulting with the helpful folks on this board, we decided to substitute Udaipur and Aurangabad for Nepal. For the most part, it worked out well. However, our itinerary now had 13 sets of take-offs and landings over 17 days. While it was good that the number of take-offs and landings turned out to be equal, it was way too much time in airports. I'll go into all the gory details as this trip report unfolds...
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Feb 28th, 2010, 07:39 AM
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great start...we now know who you are and where you hope to go...
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Feb 28th, 2010, 07:41 AM
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Waiting for more! Pictures too please.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 07:50 AM
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Anxiously awaiting the gory details. Relax Bob, I think you've been home too long....

Aloha!
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Feb 28th, 2010, 07:59 AM
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Looking forward to all the details, "gory" and otherwise...
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Feb 28th, 2010, 08:26 AM
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GETTING OUT OF DODGE

So it begins. Chicago was hit by a big snow storm on our departure day. Fortunately, United issued a travel waiver for O'Hare 24 hours in advance so we were able reroute through Washington Dulles without penalty, although we had to fly economy for the first leg. We took off on time from Hartford. On arrival in DC, we headed to the Red Carpet lounge for a long layover. Typical dumpy domestic lounge with spotty wifi. It was empty though as flights were being cancelled everywhere. Fortunately our flight to Narita was not one of them and we left on time. Later that day, Washington got walloped with snow. The 14 hour flight in business class to Narita was better than expected – reasonably good food, totally lie-flat seats and AVOD. We opted for the Red Carpet lounge at Narita for the 2 hour layover – wifi there worked well. I slept for almost the entire 7 hour flight from Narita to Bangkok – the United lie flat seats are the best I've had in business class.

We arrived at BKK to the usual lines at immigration - about a 20 minute wait. We had not stayed at an airport hotel in Bangkok since Suvarnabhumi opened. However, the Novotel worked well for us this time. As luck would have it, we were the last ones to hop on the convenient shuttle to the hotel after picking up our bags. It was a very short trip but I would not want to walk it. We chose to stay on the executive floor – there was a separate check-in but it was not busy at 12:15 AM when we arrived. The Novotel is relatively new, but seems ready for a refurbishment – still it is a nice hotel but 4 star at best. Our room was quiet and had a nice view of the pool. We had a good night's sleep and didn't feel much jet-lag in the morning. We used the free computers in the executive lounge to let our families know that we had arrived safely.

VARANASI

Our 5-hour flight to Varanasi left at noon which allowed us time to enjoy a nice buffet breakfast in the hotel lounge. We have had several trips to Bangkok where we really did not have much time to recover before moving on. I stopped at the airport duty-free to make some purchases since booze other than beer is expensive or non-existent in India. The flight to Varanasi was long due to a short stop at Gaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Arrival at Varanasi was fairly straightforward – the airport is quite small. A porter guided us through the process – I was questioned about my duty-free liquor purchase but I knew I wasn't bringing in more than the allowance so there were no hassles. I had reconfirmed our driver from the hotel before we left and he was waiting for us in the parking lot. When we got to our car, I gave the porter the standard fee. He then tried to hit me up for additional rupees for some of the other “helpers” so I had to shut the car door in his face to get rid of him.

The drive to Rashmi/Palace on the River was a long one – almost an hour. Since Varanasi was celebrating the marriage of Shiva, traffic was even worse than usual. Our drop-off point was near an alley that led to the hotel. Two young men were waiting for us and helped us with our stuff. They had uniforms and hotel badges so we knew they were legit. Check-in went quickly – we got Cokes and flower garlands to wear around our necks. Our guide and handler, Pappu was in the lobby to great us and take our photo. The price for the hotel worked out to $141 a night including airport transfers, taxes and breakfast. We had room 302 which has one of the two best views of the river activity. The other was room 303 across the hall from us which was occupied by Debbe (“Live42day”) and her husband, Doug. Our room was small but not tiny. Debbe mentioned in her report that there was barely room to “swing a cat” - maybe so. We had twin beds and everything was very clean. There was a safe in the room and a minibar. There was also a hairdryer, small shampoo, tiny soap and 2 bottles of water. I was glad we brought our own big bar of soap. I was surprised that there was a phone in the bathroom. It was warm that afternoon so we had to call the front desk and ask them to get our a/c and fan working. This was clearly a 2 star hotel but the location couldn't be beat.

We agreed to meet up with Pappu for a boat ride at sunset, giving us just enough time to unpack. The boat ride was fantastic. Pappu learned to speak English by selling post cards to tourists. Somehow along the way he hooked up with the Rashmi/Palace doing tours and now he is in great demand. He encouraged us to take photographs of anything we wanted, saying that because he knows everybody it would be okay. The boat driver took us to the big burning ghat. Sure enough, when Jeane tried to take a photo, someone objected and Pappu smoothed it over with the guy. After spending some time at the burning ghat and hearing about the cremation process, we returned to the main ghat next door to the hotel where the nightly aarti was occurring. The performance was captivating and the view from the river was great. The crowd was huge that night. We told Pappu that we wanted to see the aarti again from a different perspective, closer to the action.

We met up with Debbe and Doug for dinner at the hotel's rooftop “Dolphin” restaurant. They were from Vancouver. Debbe recently wrote an excellent trip report of their one-month sojourn to India under her “Live42day” moniker. We enjoyed several meals with them during our 3-night stay, sharing travel experiences and comparing notes. The views from the restaurant were fabulous. The food was good and reasonably priced. We ate vegetarian there and everywhere else in India. Each day we purchased a couple of bottles of water at the restaurant since it was relatively cheap and easier than finding it outside of the hotel.

We slept fairly well that night. The beds were hard but not uncomfortable and we had earplugs, a definite necessity as it was noisy all night long – dogs barking, people shouting, calls to prayer, noises in the restaurant just above our room etc.

Pappu met us early the next morning for our sunrise boat ride. Pappu had made the arrangements for the previous evening and the morning with our boat driver. While the rates seemed okay, I think we were getting about an hour and 5 minutes while being charged for 2 hours. The sun never really came up that day but the cloudy mist just added to the morning experience of watching the throngs of people either bathing in the Ganges or just standing around talking. In spite of the poor lighting, I think we got some great photos of this most colorful scene. It was amazing to me that people would not only bathe in the river but they would bring there hands up to their mouths and drink the river water.

We returned to the hotel for breakfast. Pappu said he would meet us again at 10:30 for a walking tour of the area. He told us that he was going for a dip in the river while we ate and that he was also fasting for the day – only water and chai allowed. Pappu took his Hindu religion quite seriously and would probably have tried to convert us, given the opportunity.

At 10:30, Pappu was waiting for us in the hotel lobby. It had started to rain and Pappu asked if we had brought umbrellas. We were attempting to travel a bit lighter on this trip so with no rain in the forecast, we had no umbrellas. We did have waterproof shells however, so we returned to our room to retrieve them. Our walking tour took us through many of the little alleys by the river – while it would have been difficult to get lost if we were on our own, it was nice having Pappu along to explain things and show us things that we would not even know were there. It poured at times but we managed to stay dry, except for our shoes which became covered with a mixture of mud, cow dung and god knows what else. Pappu showed us the line of people for one of the Hindu temples – hundreds of people standing on line for hours in the rain, waiting to get in. We encountered men on more than one occasion, using the outdoors as their toilet – we wondered how the women coped... Toward the end of the tour, we had the obligatory stops at a silk shop and an ayurvedic medicine shop. Jeane looked at some silks, more interested in using the silk fabric to make pillows than in having a sari made. She resisted the hard sell and ultimately decided that she did not need to buy. Our visit with the ayurvedic medicine seller was actually quite interesting. We probably spent an hour with the man, sharing chai and talking. We met his daughter who is studying English in college and eventually made a couple of small purchases. We stopped at one more silk shop where we ran into Debbe who had just made a purchase. We decided to move on and returned to the hotel. I don't think we would have found any of these places on our own as they were all hidden in back alleys.

Debbe and Doug had told us of a special place where they had watched the aarti the previous evening and we had asked Pappu if he could take us there. We agreed to meet him at 6 PM. In the meantime we used one of the hotel's 3 computers set aside for guests and did some internet. It was slow but nice to get on line to check e-mail and Fodor's. The hotel charges a nominal fee to use the computers.

The aarti that evening was much less crowded due to the rain. It drizzled on and off but we were still able to get some nice photos from what turned out to be an outdoor restaurant situated right above the stage. I tried the video setting on my camera to record some of the ceremony – hopefully I can figure out how to post it on youtube. We finished off the day with dinner at our hotel restaurant.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 10:05 AM
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The next day Pappu had arranged for a driver to take us to Sarnath, about 45 minutes from Varanasi. Our driver's name was Shukla – he turned out to be a fairly good guide as well. We started at the Archeological Museum where we spent about 45 minutes checking out the various ancient sculptures gathered from around the area. Our next stop was a stunning Buddhist monastery and temple. Worship was in progress so we could only take photos of the interesting architecture outside. The inside however was the most beautifully decorated space we had ever seen inside a Buddhist temple. We went in and sat down, leaving our cameras and shoes with Shukla outside the temple. Inside, monks of all ages were chanting, singing and playing their instruments. It was a surreal scene, peaceful. Jeane and I sat down on the floor behind the monks and took it all in. We sat in the lotus position for about a ½ hour, just looking, listening and enjoying this beautiful spot. Finally, my old legs had tired so it was time to move on.

We headed to the Dhamekh Stupa where the Buddha is said to have delivered a famous sermon. Nearby was a small shop where a Tibetan painter displayed thangkas for sale. They were quite striking in their detail – we were thinking that since we would not be making it to Nepal where thangkas are ubiquitous, we would consider a purchase. We discussed prices and decided to think about it for a while. Near the stupa was a Jain temple. Shukla came in with us and introduced us to the temple priest who gave us a fairly detailed overview of the Jain religion and it's central philosophy of non-violence toward all living things. We found what we learned from him to be helpful when we visited the Jain temple at Ranakpur. His description was accompanied by a showing of photos of Jain High Priests with “everything” on display (apparently clothing is optional). We made a small donation, thanked the priest for his time and headed out of the temple to a spot where we could photograph the Dhamekh Stupa before leaving. On the way back to the car, Jeane and I decided we would purchase one of the thangkas that we liked. Our guide suggested that there would not be much room for negotiation. Fortunately we were comfortable with the asking price and proceeded to make our purchase.

We continued on, stopping briefly at a small but pretty Japanese Buddhist temple. It was mid-afternoon by now and we still had to visit the Hindu University in Varanasi which would complete our education on India's great religions for the day. Shukla stopped and bought us a chai along the way. The main stop for us at the University was the Hindu temple. Shukla took his time describing the various deities on display – with Hinduism, the more I hear, the more I get confused but I am starting to understand the religion a little better. It was time to return to the hotel and I said so – it would be dark soon and we had had enough for one day. Shukla gently resisted, even wanted to stop for chai one more time – I firmly insisted that he take us back to the hotel. It seemed he was trying to run out the clock. While it had been a good day, this was a stressful way to finish it.

Finally back at the hotel, we enjoyed our last dinner – Debbe and Doug showed up at the tail end of our meal and we agreed to have breakfast together before departing the next day.

Our airport transfer was scheduled for 11 am so we had plenty of time to pack up our things and organize for our flight. I was up for sunrise but it did not materialize – I took some photos from the restaurant of dawn breaking over the Ganges. We had a nice breakfast with Debbe and Doug. Pappu stopped by and took a photo of all of us. We also had our photo taken with Pappu. We had paid him the night before at the going rate – he seemed happy with with what we gave him. We had one final goodbye with Debbe and Doug, just before we left for the airport. On the way to the airport, some guy appeared out of nowhere, insisting to the driver that he be allowed to share a ride with us. Even if the car wasn't as tiny as it was (barely enough room for us and our luggage), I wouldn't have let him. I had to yell at the driver to get moving again. I am glad that Varanasi was not the first place I ever visited in India – it does require some “street smarts” to cope. When we arrived at the airport, we were able to obtain luggage carts without the help of the porters for the very short walk to the terminal. Upon arrival we discovered that this flight on Kingfisher Air like every subsequent flight we had in India had been delayed. That being said, Kingfisher was an excellent airline. Kingfisher employees would always walk us through the security/check-in process and help us with our bags when we arrived at our destination. Snacks and water were available free of charge on all flights. As I mentioned in my “live” report, we had seat function issues but only on this one flight.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 10:19 AM
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Craig, I've been looking forward to this report. Thanks for all of the excellent detail!
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Feb 28th, 2010, 02:25 PM
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Welcome back. Varanasi is indeed amazing! It's unfortunate when guides,no doubt in search of better tips, don't abide by established norms. On the Ganges our guide told us well in advance that there is a "no photo" zone in the area of the cremations and once we reached a designated place on the river all cameras/videos must be put away. I guess these rules don't apply to Pappu's guests.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 03:25 PM
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A Hindu Yankee fan? Talk about an oxymoron! As always, a timely and informative report. Can't wait to see yur pictures.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 04:00 PM
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Eagerly awaiting more! I've nearly decided on India for our autumn trip.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 04:06 PM
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Excellent report! Looking forward to more. Interesting about photos of cremations vis-a-vis Marija's experience...
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Feb 28th, 2010, 06:21 PM
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I'm enjoying your report! Maybe some day I'll get to India.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 07:37 PM
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Welcome home. Wonderful reporting, as always. We, too, thought Rashmi Guest House and Pappu were great flavoring to the stew that is Varanasi. Just finished watching a 4 fine hour PBS special on India, see what you think.
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Feb 28th, 2010, 08:59 PM
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fantastic....can't wait to read more...
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Mar 1st, 2010, 01:02 AM
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OVERNIGHT IN DELHI

A driver from the Radisson met us at the airport and in 15 minutes we were at the hotel. I had received a text message from our Rotary exchange student earlier in the day and replied that we would be arriving a bit late. I hadn't heard back from her so I tried to call from my cell phone without success. I also tried to call her aunt whose cell phone number I had but got voice mail. We checked into our room on the Club Floor and shortly thereafter my cell phone rang. It was our exchange student's mom. They were staying in Connaught Place – where did we want to meet? It was already about 6 PM and we had to get to the airport early the next morning so I suggested that they come to the Radisson – happy hour in the Club Lounge was 7 to 9 so it would be perfect. The ladies arrived about an hour later and we headed to the Club Lounge. I had inquired via e-mail whether guests were permitted and the response was that they were not – so I chose to ignore the e-mail. It was a Sunday night and the Lounge was fairly empty. We found a couple of sofas across from each other and sat down. Shortly thereafter a server came to take drink orders. Most lounges that I have been to have buffets at happy hour – this one did not. Instead, a selection of hors d'oeuvres was brought to us with our drinks – veg pastries, chicken satays, mixed nuts etc. -enough for the ladies to make a meal out of it. Jeane and I were not very hungry as we had been well fed in business class on our Kingfisher flight. We had a pleasant time catching up with our exchange student, her mother and her aunt. I encouraged them to visit the Mughal Gardens at the Presidential Palace while they were in Delhi. All too quickly it was time for them to go. The server discretely called me over and indicated that I needed to pay for the ladies' drinks – I signed the check to my room and we were on our way.

We enjoyed a really fine buffet breakfast the next morning – lots to choose from and a big change from the rather basic breakfast served at our Varanasi hotel. For about 12 hours we did not feel like we were in India anymore – the Radisson could have been anywhere on the planet and, after Varanasi it was a refreshing break. Check-out was at Indian speed though. The front desk had 10 employees – 8 were standing around doing nothing and the other 2 were checking people out. The guy in front of me was having serious credit card problems which no one could seem to figure out. After about 10 minutes of this, he finally stepped aside so that I could settle my bill and head to the domestic airport.

At Delhi airport we were escorted to the check-in line with our baggage. Each airport we went to seemed to have a different procedure and different rules for security. Here we checked our bags at the same time we received our boarding pass. At some of the smaller airports baggage was x-rayed first and then checked. The rules for carry-on were also inconsistent. At some airports I was able to carry a water bottle through without it being confiscated. At some, I had to keep my plastic bag of small liquid bottles separate and at others I could leave it in my carry-on. We never had to remove our shoes but we were always searched with metal-detecting wands with sensitivities that varied from airport to airport.

Eventually we boarded our flight and were on our way to Udaipur.
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Mar 1st, 2010, 02:51 AM
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UDAIPUR

We arrived in Udaipur a half hour late. Udaipur has a brand new airport that is compact and easy to get around. In spite of that, the Kingfisher folks were there to assist us. There was something big going on at the airport. A band was playing outside and the road out was lined with decorations. Apparently there was a big wedding in town and the fanfare at the airport was for greeting the out-of-town guests. Our driver was waiting for us in the parking lot. Before we departed for Asia, I had to phone to confirm our Udaipur lodging and transfer. For some reason, I had not received the responses they sent to my e-mails. The cars in India that had been available to take us around were consistently small. We had tried to travel a little lighter on this trip and had no problems fitting in these cars with all of our luggage. The drive from the airport took about 40 minutes, mostly on a good 4-lane highway.

Udaipur is a top tourist destination for Indians and foreigners alike. Because of our last minute planning we had few options, especially if we wanted to stay on the lake in one of the big tourist hotels. So, egged on by dogster and others, I decided to look at home-stays elsewhere in the city. Jeane and I thought it would be great to stay in someone's home (as “home-stay” implies) and get to know the owner personally. Also, by my standards, the prices of these places were downright cheap. So I searched, researched, checked Tripadvisor and came up with Pahuna Haveli (www.pahunahaveli.com) which was purported to be a short auto-rickshaw ride from the main part of town - $65/night.

Pahuna Haveli did not disappoint. Hemant, our hostess was helpful and kind. Our “suite” room was huge with lots of places, nooks and crannies to spread out our stuff for the 4 nights and almost 5 full days that we would stay there. Everything was impeccably clean. The furnishings were either antiques or just time-worn with loads of character. There was a/c (which we did not use), ceiling fans and plenty of electrical outlets to plug in our stuff – hair dryer, coffee maker, chargers for phone and camera etc. The queen bed was hard but very comfortable. The only negative was that the shower pressure was not great and the hot water tank was a bit small. Hemant told me that the purified water from the tap is drinkable after being run through a filtration system. We drank from the water pitcher in the room and at breakfast with no ill effects. Pahuna Haveli is located in a quiet semi-residential neighborhood. We would occasionally hear a horn honking at night but it was infrequent. As I mentioned in my live report, the grounds are beautifully landscaped. However, one morning I looked out at the empty lot behind the home next door and observed a cow eating garbage – no zoning regulations in Udaipur.

After getting settled in, we decided to check out the lay-of-the-land. We walked out to the main road to find an auto rickshaw to take us into town. There were several waiting. Hemant had told us 40-50 rupees would do the trick and, after a little negotiation with the first driver to approach us, we were on our way to Jagdish Temple. The temple is in a busy area about a block from the City Palace. We decided to go inside. Almost immediately upon entering we were approached by a young man who proceeded to follow us around, offering us various tidbits of information about the temple. As we were putting on our shoes and getting ready to leave, he asked us if we would go with him to his uncle's shop. I had a feeling this was coming. I gave him a firm “no” and walked away. It took two more “no's” before he gave up on us.

Udaipur is known for it's miniature paintings. The first shop we visited, a place near the Jagdish Temple below Maxim's Cafe' was the best. Jeane and I knew immediately that we would purchase one or two paintings. We checked out several other shops for pricing and comparison but concluded that the first place had the best quality. We decided to return later in the week. Jeane also found a wall hanging, a tapestry that she liked at a branch of Rajasthali, the government-run handicraft store. After looking in other shops, it quickly became obvious that she had found exactly what she wanted – we would return to Rajasthali as well. Our final task for the afternoon was to find Jagat Niwas, a hotel with a popular rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake so that we would know where to come for dinner that evening. It took us a while to find on the alley-way on the lake side of the main road but eventually we did. We returned to Pahuna Haveli to relax for a while.

We returned to town at 7 to catch the excellent music dance performance at Bagore Ki Haveli. Afterward we enjoyed a nice dinner at Jagat Niwas and our first view of Lake Pichhola lit up at night. Jagat Niwas had been recommended by our hostess and others. It was also the place that live42day and her husband stayed. When it is "late" the auto-rickshaw drivers try to demand a higher fare. We held our ground with them though and were back at Pahuna Haveli by 10:30 PM.
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Mar 1st, 2010, 03:47 AM
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Great stuff, Craig.
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Mar 1st, 2010, 12:27 PM
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Wonderful detail Craig. Great report so far.
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Mar 1st, 2010, 02:06 PM
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How nice to find this here this morning. As usual, a report by Craig is a great read!
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