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TRIP REPORT: BHUTAN, RAJASTHAN,VARANASI, PHUKET,BANGKOK, PART 2 (INDIA & BANGKOK)

TRIP REPORT: BHUTAN, RAJASTHAN,VARANASI, PHUKET,BANGKOK, PART 2 (INDIA & BANGKOK)

Old Mar 4th, 2008, 02:32 PM
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TRIP REPORT: BHUTAN, RAJASTHAN,VARANASI, PHUKET,BANGKOK, PART 2 (INDIA & BANGKOK)

Since there are so many reports on this board about India I will only comment on places we stayed, ate, shopped or visited that were memorable or possibly little known. Again THANK YOU to all who helped me craft this part of our trip and offer solutions to various issues. If I’ve omitted your name, forgive me. I benefited so much from the help of Cicerone, Thursdaysd, Lcuy, RHKKMK, Craig, Kathie, TracyB, Julies, Gilawi01 and others.

Based on reports here we used Compass Tours for our guides and drivers. The manager of the local office in each city greeted us at the airport. I thought Compass did an adequate job for us. I’m not sure the frustration of dealing with some of the hotels was worth the effort and aggrivatio. I did save some money and got the rooms I wanted.

India Day 1 -Arrival in Delhi from Paro, Bhutan
By the time we arrived in Delhi my cold was much worse. We were met by the Compass Tours representative. Without consulting us, he drove us to Jama Masjid mosque. We told the rep that we wished to go directly to our hotel, that I was sick. He made several phone calls. We waited in the car. A guide appeared and asked us to follow him to tour the mosque. We said we wanted to go to our hotel. By this time I’d run out of kleenex and was truly miserable; besides I’d visited this mosque on my previous trip to Delhi. We waited in the car another half hour. Our rep was nearby making more phone calls. This was not an auspicious beginning. DH had a little chat with him and we finally hit the road.

The Imperial Hotel is a grand old dame, beautiful public areas, correct service and for my taste, impersonal. The frangipani that occupied every vase and niche made my cold feel worse (I also considered yesterday’s hot stone bath and the airport jet fumes as contributors). We had a Heritage room/deluxe which was richly appointed with traditional decor and modern facilities. I was so unwell we canceled our dinner at the Spice Route and ordered room service, which was mediocre, at best.

India Day 2: Delhi morning, Udaipur afternoon

Our flight to Udaipur wasn’t until afternoon so we had the morning to tour. We told our guide we wanted to spend our time wandering around the back streets in Old Delhi (a suggestion I took from ya’all). He drove us by the old city and was heading away when we had to insist that we wanted to wander through the old town. He hired us a bicycle rickshaw and we had a nice tour of the area and walked around the old windy back streets. No, we told him for the third time, we did not want to see monuments or shop today.

Upon arrival in Udaiput we went directly to UdaiVilas and relaxed on our patio. Our room (#138) faced the City Palace but any substantial view was obstructed by trees. If you want an unobstructed view I think #124-134 (even numbers only) are probably best; these rooms are in the Premier Lake View category. This category/wing of the hotel faces the lake and has a continuous pool (think river) that runs the length of this wing. So each room’s outdoor patio has a narrow pool (maybe 12’ wide) in front of it; there is also a beautiful pool facing the lake for all hotel guests.

The advantage of our room was that it abutted a remarkable nature preserve which used to be the raj’s hunting grounds. From our sun chaises, we could see lovely spotted deer grazing and in the trees above them birds of prey watched and waited. Peacocks and pea hens strutted around the preserve and a couple of peacocks hopped up to our pool patio to have a look around. We were also visited by other wonderfully colorful small birds.

Our room was elegant; not unusually large but beautifully arranged, wonderful fabrics and colors, everything harmonious, the amenities world class. The hotel grounds are extensive, well maintained and interesting. There are so many wonderful spots in the hotel from which to enjoy the great views. In my view, UdaiVilas, an Oberei Hotel, deserves all the accolates its received including recent naming as #2 top resort hotel in the world. Also very well trained and very accommodating staff.

The best deal I could find at Christmas was through American Express Platinum: $675 a night including breakfast and one dinner for two during the stay. Taxes add a lot and they present the bill in rupees and then convert the tab into dollars at a usurious rate; if you’re on the AX program you have to pay using your AX card (and don’t forget their international fees).

Around 6 pm there was entertainment in one of the larger courtyards. Some of the dancers, in traditional dress, were men in drag, I never got an explanation on that. The fire eater was amsuing and the spiced wine and appetizers they served were very tasty. Then we walked downstairs to the beautiful formal dining room, and enjoyed an excellent dinner.

India Day 3: Udaipur

My nose is still running, no matter what I take. Dr. Fred has dignified my cold by diagnosing it an upper respiratory infection.
Our guide Raj Singh took us on a morning tour of the City Palace Complex. The area was very crowded with Indian families on holiday. Among the three palaces in the comples, I thought the most impressive room was the Crystal Gallery in Fateh Prakash Palace. We had a decent lunch at Sunset Restaurant; outdoor seating in front of the water.

After lunch we took a motorized rickshaw through the old city. Its very atmospheric with its jumble of narrow streets and endless shops. We repaired to the hotel to relax by the pool. After some time in the sun my nasal water pressure is decreasing.

A normal person in my state of health would eat and go to sleep. However, you must understand, I had shopping to do. Meenu, our outstanding driver, drove us to two shops (tragically, I had pared down my list). Gem Arts Emporium had a good jewelry selection. I liked the personal servic, no high pressure stuff here. Lots of silver, gold, gems. In half an hour I bought a well designed necklace of black onyx beads with a distinctive silver medallion. OM (45 New Fatehpura) had an extensive selection of miniatures (a specialty of Udaipur). I bought a well executed oval miniature of a wealthy merchant (jeweled turbin and all) done on camel bone. End of evening shopping blitzkrig.

Raj had booked us a table at Newar Palace Hotel (not a small accomplishment for Christmas Day evening dining). It has a lovely outdoor courtyard for evening dining by the pool; pretty good fare. Best food was at our hotel, UdaiVilas.

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Old Mar 4th, 2008, 04:34 PM
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Great start! Happy Travels!
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Old Mar 4th, 2008, 05:05 PM
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And thanks for your suggestion about how to post this.
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Old Mar 4th, 2008, 06:08 PM
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Robbie- The Imperial has definitely gone downhill in the last two years. Your description was perfect, "impersonal."

Lots of little differences from my past visits, and as prices have doubled in the same period, I found it irritating.

But the Oberois...they still know how to treat their guests!
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Old Mar 4th, 2008, 08:06 PM
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So sorry to hear you were sick. Also sorry to hear that the Compass rep was uncooperative on your arrival in Delhi. At least when I handled arrivals on my own in India the taxi/rickshaw driver went where I said, even if I did need to bargain over the price!
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Old Mar 6th, 2008, 05:29 PM
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India Day 4: Udaipur
At UdaiVilas, we had a sumptuous buffet breakfast on the patio facing Pichola Lake. After a good night’s sleep I had abundant shopping energy. Ganesh Handicraft Emporium (City Palace Road in the old city) is an old havali (rich merchant’s house) with many rooms, levels and additions. An immense selection of every kind of textile can be found in each room, on every wall and tucked into all niches. In a month you couldn’t wade through the entire inventory of carpets, garments, wall hangings, etc.

Three brothers wait on customers while the senior Mr. Laxman can be seen enthroned in his office. Our salesman, the youngest Mr. Laxman was not high pressure but definitely high hype. He mentioned the famous people who have bought there and showed me books of Indian textile that displayed textiles just like the one I was considering (but of lesser quality, of course). Despite the hype, the quality of some of their pieces was excellent. I bought a very old tribal blouse with complex embroidery and appliqué, an old embroidered money bag with mirror work on it, some pillow cases and pieces to be used as runners. Its best to perfect your bargaining skills before entering. (DH jokes that the merchants in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul tremble when I bargain.) Mr. Laxman and I had good textile talk while he showed me various pieces. After the deal was struck, we shook hands and both seemed satisfied with the transaction.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Ambrai Restaurant, adjacent to Lal Ghat. The restaurant’s riverside terrace location affords terrific views of the three palaces across the river and the activity at the nearby ghat. The vicinity around the restaurant is great for strolling through an old neighborhood and another century. It would be easy to spend another day in Udaipur and not get bored.

After lunch we headed out of the city en route to our next lodging. Because of a reservation glitch, UdaiVilas only had us reserved for two nights so we decided to spend the third night of our Udaipur stay at Devi Garh, about 45 minutes northeast of Udaipur. On the way we visited The Garden of the Maidens. It was fun watching the touring Indian families deal with their rambunctious children. The gardens and fountains were nice but if time is short, its a must miss.

On the way to the hotel, we had a pleasant drive through the countryside, chatting with Meenu and learning some about him.
Devi Garh has been written up in most of the travel and architectural magazines. The old palace here underwent eight years of malicious renovation to o create this architecturally award winning hotel.

The 39 suites (with 3 room categories) make much use of local marble and semi precious stones in a fusion of old and new (sleek modern). The rooms and public areas are architecturally fascinating. It took genius to incorporate modern lighting, plumbing and fixtures into an old palace, wrapping new walls around old stone pillars, arches and columns.

Our Udaipur guide, Raj, used to work here and called ahead to make sure we got a wonderful room. We were in #37; according the the hotel, a two step upgrade from our reservation. I take these claims (rampant in India) with a ton of salt (but the rack rate for #37 was listed at $1250!). Our reservation was for a Palace suite and we were in an Aravali Suite.

Our suite had a small bedroom, a generous living room, a large his and hers dressing room and large bathroom (with view of hills from bathtub). The decor was minimalist, mostly whites. We had three balconies that looked over the Aravali hills in two directions. Wild parrots liked to perch on our balcony railings. So we sat on the stone bench below the railing and hung out with them while watching the mystical sunset.

Our sweet Udaipur guide Raj called our room to see how we liked the suite. I waxed poetic and thanked him truly. By the way, he wanted to mention that the miniatures we admired (at the painting school he took us to on the last day in Udaipur) would be discounted 15% for us and he recalled the ones we admired. We had already made our miniature purchase and did not fancy more than one. I think that when Raj heard from Meenu that I bought a necklace at Gem Arts, a miniature at OM and several things at Ganesh Handicrafts (he was with us there) he could no longer squelch his entrepreneurial instincts. So before departing Udaipur we stopped at a painting school where there was a terrific selection of well done miniatures. If I’d come here first I might have purchased here instead. But we admired some and then left.

At night we lit all the little candles that sat in niches and alcoves; a very romantic setting. The clientele here is young, hip, Indian and rich; almost everyone at the pool was using a laptop. Dining room was really attractive. Food was a let down, service indifferent.

India Day 5: Delwara, drive to Deogarh Mahal

A particular delight of staying at Devi Garh was its location on the hill above Delwara village. I walked down the hill to arrive at Delwara village. I arrived around 8 am as the village was coming to life. The village has maybe 300 people in it and is poor village by Western standards. I followed behind the bicycle of a milk vendor for a while and watched him make his deliveries. The villagers were very friendly. If I showed an interest in what the children were playing, they welcomed me. If I showed curiosity about what vegetables the women were selling, they beckoned me closer.

Along the way I acquired helpers; several English speaking late adolescents appointed themselves my tour guides, protectors and handlers. I would have had to be very firm and blunt to get rid of them and after one meager attempt I chose to go with the flow. So I accepted their assistance and they actually took me places I would not have seen unaided. First, I followed them to what looked like a construction site. An area 200' x 200' was behind gates and men were digging. Several ruined columns and other small structures were standing in various locations on the site. The boys proudly announced that just yesterday a valuable piece of sculpture had been excavated from this area. I watched the men carefully digging and they watched me with quizzical expressions. As we left the area and returned to the street, one of my guides ran over to a man reading his morning paper in front of his shop. He borrowed the newspaper from him and brought it to me to show me the front page photograph of the unearthed artifact (and affirm his credibility with me).

We wandered up and down streets and they led me into a family compound; like a miniature village within the village. The boys knew everyone there. This group of families were tending their morning chores. I admired the colorful turban of one man and asked to take his photo. The turbans in Rajasthan are fascinating. Each man's region and caste (and sub caste) can be known by his turban, its colors and how he ties it. So I did a photo study of turbans on the trip. An old man in this compound was a potter and I watched him work his wheel while his granddaughter crawled through his legs.

My delegation of Delwara greeters then brought me to a Jain temple, tucked away on a tiny street. I left my shoes and camera outside and grabbed my socks from my fanny pack (I always carry temple socks, thick tennis socks, so I don't have to walk barefoot on the cold temple floors). This little temple was a gem. While the main statue of a deity was simple in its enclosure, the walls and ceiling carvings were exquisitely detailed. The attendant inside the temple warmed up to me when she realized I was not intending to desecrate the temple in any way.

It was time to get back to the hotel and check-out. So I waved goodbye to my guides and to the villagers I passed as I left.


Checking out at Devi Garh was slow; several parties ahead of us and only one person attending. Comparing UdaiVilas and Devi Garth, I much prefer UndaiVilas. Their staff are better trained and friendlier, the grounds are lush, the food excellent. I guess Devi Garh is too trendy for me and/or I too old for it.

We drove a short while to arrive at Sas Babu (I’m not sure I have this name right), the site of remains of a 13th century temple. The stone carvings on the three temple facades were very intricate. Many erotic carvings were similar to those as Khajuraho. If you can't get to Khajuraho to see their extensive temples (and the wonderful village of Old Khajuraho) then this site is well worth a visit. The diversity in positions, couplings and species of the sexual activities carved in stone is impressive.

We drove on well paved roads about two hours to the northeast. Frommer’s had suggested that Deogarh Mahal was a good stop after visiting Ranakpur and Kumbalgarh and in route to Jodhpur. Meenu said that routing wouldn’t work so we went directly to the hotel and did the touring of Ranakpur and Kumbalgarh the next day on the way to Jodhpur.

The roads were beautiful and smooth compared to the ones I traveled on in eastern Rajasthan in 2000. We drove through rolling hills that reminded me of Southern California vegetation and passed many roadside marble "factories". Marble is local to this area and each vendor has his stabs lined up on his “lot” beside the road. I did not see many people tending the stores, but camels stood guard.

We arrived at Deogarh Mahal in time for a delicious late lunch. The palace’s reception hall is uphill from the gates of the palace entrance. The owners are descendants of the Mewar rulers who built it. Considered one of the most authentic heritage hotels in Rajasthan, it is a grand 17th century fort-palace with domed turrets, narrow passages, hidden balconies and stained glass windows.

Our room was really memorable, #211. Its called the Royal Suite and was occupied by the Crown Prince in his day. Both the living room and bedroom have alcoves, like window seats, that are the size of a double bed. Each alcove has beautiful stained glass windows that open out to the main courtyard below. Looking up from the daybed in the alcoves is magnificent ceiling tiles and mirror work. We thoroughly enjoyed this romantic room. Outside our room was a small private balcony where we read for a while before dinner.
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Old Mar 6th, 2008, 06:02 PM
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fantastic detail makes this all so interesting....thanks robbie
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Old Mar 6th, 2008, 07:10 PM
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I agree, the detail is amazing...i just don't know how u remember this all, I am lucky if i write 1 sentence on the forum when i get home...Really interesting to read.
I am looking forward to your Varanasi part as i stayed the same place u did a few months ago!!
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Old Mar 8th, 2008, 08:53 AM
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Thanks, I have been inspired by many of our eloquent posters here. So I kept a very small notebook with me. I usually have one with me anyway for info on shots i snap; this time I got one with enough pages to take cryptic notes while relaxing in the afternoons. In two places there was nothing to do at night after dinner so i used the internet and -mailed a few paragraphs to myself. More to follow on India.
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Old Mar 12th, 2008, 06:35 PM
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India Day 6 Deogarh Mahal to Jodhpur
This was a very long day but so worthwhile.
There’s a village just down the road from the hotel/palace entrance. It would probably take several hours to walk it end to end. I sat on a stoop and just watched the daily activity for a while. Then we were off. Its a two hour drive northwest to Kumbalgarh Fort. The scenery on this drive was really beautiful, rolling countryside reminiscent of southern Spain.

Fifteenth century Kumbalgarh Fort is enormous, its perimeter walls stretch for 22 miles and are wide enough for 8 horses to ride abreast. Inside the fort are palace remains and temples. From the ramparts, the views of the surrounding countryside seem endless. DH does not get excited by monuments less than 1200 years old; he really was astounded by this fortification.

The drive from Kumbalgarh to Ranakpur was the most scenic of our India trip. Tiny villages and villagers appear around this bend and that. The small farms were fertile and well tended. We saw several men sitting on their waterwheels pulled by a cow. This scene probably looked the same six hundred years ago.

What was refreshingly new again were the first class roads in this area. But the state is still one of the poorest in the country. I suspect their poverty is abetted by the entrenchment of the caste system in this region.

Ranakpur. Every enthusiastic guide book description is true. The carving on these Jain temples are just exquisite. Words (despite the number of superlatives) don’t do them justice; they have to be seen to be appreciated.

After taking in all this beauty, we drove to Jodhpur and our hotel, a few miles outside of town. We stayed at the Balsamand Lake Palace Hotel. I’d read the city was hustle, bustle, lots of noise and that there were no great places to commend an in town stay. I have mixed feeling about this hotel. It is indeed old and they are making much needed renovation. The man made lake is an uninspired reservoir.

We stayed in the main palace; it has seven rooms. One room faces the lake (#1), several have arched beamed ceilings and original pillars in the rooms; our room (#6) had none of these architectural treats. The room was very large with 1940’s furniture; it lacked grace and harmony. The public areas were nice and the breakfast room facing the “lake” was a lovely space. Dealing with Indian Holiday Pvt.Ltd., the booking agent for the hotel, was an exercise in frustration. When they finally did respond after several attempts they were not responsive. Replies such as “we have accepted your reservation and will charge your credit card for Room 6. We will notify you later what room you have”. Efforts to clarify such double talk are useless.

India Day 7 Jodhpur
We have a full day of touring. Our new guide also speaks Hindish; that is, English from which I can usually pick out three or four familiar words per sentence. Sometimes DH and I confer and in due course figure out what is being described.

Our tour of the Mehrangarh Fort was really rewarding. Our guide had previously worked in the Fort’s museum and was very well informed. I especially enjoyed seeing the galleries of swords, elephant howdahs (carriers) and the room of royal infant beds and cradles. One of the state entertainment rooms was lavish beyond imagination. As seemed to be customary, our guide informed us that Richard Gere stood right over there to admire the view. Our guide led Chelsea Clinton on her tour to the fort last year. Do Indians think all Americans are name droppers or are they enamored with celebrities I wondered.

We watched a ten minute video on the fort and present day Jodhpur. The current maharaja of Mehwar is depicted as an inspirational leader and practical man.

The Royal Crematorium and Memorial (a white marble cenotaph) to Maharaja Jaswant Thada are just down the hill from the sheer cliff walls of the fort. The decorations inside the memorial are similar to that of the Taj Mahal minus the jeweled inlays.

After a good chicken tandoori lunch, I know not where, we took a tuk tuk to the old town. What I liked about Jodhpur is that its a city going about its business and not on parade for tourists. Hardly any tourists compared o Udaipur.

In my view, no visit to Jodhpur is complete without a stop at Maharani Arts Exporters. sAnd did you know Hermes, Etro and Donna Karan get their designs and textiles fabricated from MAE? This scarf here would sell in the States for $400 my salesman confided. I found myself involuntarily nodding in agreement. Whether the pieces we bought were designed for Hermes or not, they are beautiful. One is a light as a feather cashmere wall hanging with a scene of cranes; it is reversible. Another is a similar piece that they made into a long tunic jacket for me. The way they utilized the elements of the pattern and the tailoring of the jacket were perfection. This beautiful wearable art cost $275. So if any of you go the Maharani, let me know, I’d like to order another one.

We had a pleasant dinner at Bollygoods. The food was tasty, the eye jollies even better. This seemed to be the hip place for young Indians to congregate. Lots of dating couples and families here.
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Old Mar 13th, 2008, 06:52 AM
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loving the descriptions
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Old Mar 13th, 2008, 08:27 AM
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Wonderful report, Robbie, I'm really enjoying all the details.
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Old Mar 16th, 2008, 10:56 PM
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India Day 8 Jodhpur to Delhi
We had a leisurely morning enjoying the vast grounds and gardens at Balsamand Palace. Meenu picked us up and we went to see Umaid Bhawan Palace, completed in 1942; its quite imposing, with its 347 rooms. It is the residence of the current maharaja. One section is a hotel. There was a long, long line to get in and DH wasn’t in a waiting mood.

We ate a delicious lunch at On the Rocks, not far from the palace. Casual outdoor seating under trees that provided shade. Lots of tourists here from many different countries. Only spotted one American couple.

The flight from Jodhpur to Delhi was a breeze. I recommend Jet Airways without qualification. For those not familiar with air travel in India, you have to fly in and out of Delhi to get to most cities in the north and in and out of Bombay or Calcutta in the south (like Delta going through Atlanta).

We stayed overnight right outside the airport at the Radisson. I was pleasantly surprised; not nearly as antiseptic as I’d imagined. Attractive room; I really appreciated having an iron and ironing board right there.
We relaxed over a drink at the sleek bar and then had dinner in their cafe. Prices are very competitive on the internet.

India Day 9 Delhi to Varanasi
After breakfast we took the shuttle for the ten minute ride to the terminal. Smooth flight from Delhi to Varanasi.
We arrived in Varanasi mid afternoon and it took about 45 minutes to get in to town. We were staying in the old city down by the Ganga (the river Ganges). The old city's streets are very crowded with people, cows and bicycles, carts and anything else you can think of. Cars are uncommon in this area and it took probably 20 of the 45 minutes to go 2 miles.

I had been to Varanasi in 2000 and stayed at the Taj Ganges. It wasn't a bad hotel at that time but uninspired. What I didn't like was that it was so far from the action. There was little of interest within walking distance from the hotel. So this time we were in the midst of the action. The Palace on River (aka Rashmi Guest House) sits just above the Ganges. Our room, #303 ($115), is the only one with a real river view; its four floors up from the lobby so I got some daily stairmaster exercise. The room is tiny but has the essentials. Yes, the shower leaked onto the bathroom floor and only two eight year olds could occupy the bathroom simultaneously. But it had what we wanted ...the proximity to the river life, was totally clean and even a frig. The hotel manager, Ramesh, was a delightful host who has been in the hotel business for many years. He arranged airport transport for us and a guide when we wanted one.

After settling into our room and doing laundry it was about 5:30. Chanting began and went on for maybe an hour. The timbre of the chanting felt like there was a temple adjacent to our room. We got on a boat and headed toward the source of the chanting. By 6 in the evening devotees were at Dasashwammedh ghat. (A ghat is composed of a series of concrete steps leading from water's edge to a landing; you descend the steps to bathe in the sacred river. The landing above might include a courtyard or a shrine or vendor stalls; there are 84 ghats in Varanasi).

At dusk young Brahman priests were performing prayer rituals and burning brazier, drummers were drumming, locals were lighting candles, and everywhere dogs were sniffing their counterparts. We were in the boat for about half an hour. Had we gone earlier we would have gotten a boat space closer to the ceremony site but we could enjoy the action well enough from the back row of boats.

When we returned to the hotel we decided to try their rooftop restaurant. What a wonderful surprise, the food was excellent and not too spicy for me. We started out sitting outside but it got too windy so we relocated inside. The service is slow and friendly, worth the savoring.

India Day 10 Varanasi
We got up early to cruise the river before sunrise. You must haggle for the fare; it is expected you’l pay 50% or less of the initial offer. The sunrise scene on the Ganges is to me the most fundamental, profound experience of India. Devout Hindus wade into the river chest high and press hands together and pray toward the dawning light. Women discreetly disrobe and bathe; laundry men wash clothes on the steps. And some ghats are reserved for cremations. We had our boatman get as close to shore as possible at the cremation ghats. We saw the bodies being carried down to the ghat from the street above and watched the pyres being built and then lit. This was a very moving experience of Indian life and death. In my view, you have not seen India unless you have spent time in Varanasi.

After a satisfying breakfast I checked e-mail. They have two terminals on the mezzanine of Rashmi Guest House, both work and are moderately fast and free. One of my e-mails was an SOS from my friend Jaci. Her son is getting married and she wants to wear a fabulous sari in the wedding party colors of deep red and silver. So I now had a shopping mission in a city famous for its silk saris.

A guide named Pappu seems to have his headquarters in the lobby of our hotel. We engaged his services for sari shopping. We followed him through the maze of narrow back streets of the old city to an old house we would not have found in a million years. One room of the house was the showroom of a sari dealer. After looking at 7 or 8 saris, I found the perfect one for her.

After lunch we decided to explore the old city on foot. We meant to walk around for an hour or two but there were so many interesting things to notice. After the fifteenth body was carried down the main street to the ghat for cremation, I stopped counting bodies. We walked and walked and walked and when we were ready to head home it was clear we were lost. We showed the name of the hotel to several people who shrugged. I figured a young person with a cell phone might speak English and we lucked out. So after about four hours we returned to our room. Since dinner was so good (and everything so clean) last night we decided to repeat the performance. Another fine dinner and off to bed.

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Old Mar 19th, 2008, 07:01 PM
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India Day 11
Our last day in Varanasi and India. Since I was up early I went out to do some photography. I roamed around from about 7 to 9 am. I descended the steps that lead from our hotel down to the water. I saw some of the same early morning activities as yesterday morning but this time from land. There's a cement path that connects all the ghats so one can walk parallel to the Ganges and then take a set of steps down to water's edge. I walked down to watch a laundry crew. Several men were washing clothing in the river by hitting them on large cement blocks. I understand that this is their local laundry service. Sometimes women are there too, washing clothes for their family.

Despite all efforts to be scam proof. I fell for one. I was taking a photo of a man (with his permission) sitting under a canopy with a priest. He said he would like to give me a blessing for the new year. I declined. He persisted: “no obligation for nothing, my pleasure". He gave me a blessing and then showed me a book with the names and donation amounts given by tourists around the world for his special blessings. I made a small donation and I left asap.

Not two minutes later an Indian man in a suit approached me; he was followed by a woman and young girl. I was about to be surly based on my experience a few minutes earlier and then did a reality check. Good thing. The man and his family were visiting Varanasi from the south and just wanted to chat with a Westerner. We had a pleasant conversation and said our goodbyes and Happy New Years. After an hour poking around down at the water, I walked up the steps away from Dasashwamedh Ghat. The steps were lined with destitute beggers, their deformities on full display. It is a tragic scene with a visceral punch.


At the top of the steps the old city was coming to life. The produce market stands were busy with customers. The vendors had to shoo away dogs and cows while serving their customers. A beggar girl befriended me and accompanied me throughout my old city ramble. She asked for money for food and I went to a fruit stand to buy her a banana but she declined. This girl of perahps eleven years had perfected the art of pestering just short of provoking harsh words or worse from her would-be benefactors.

Taking photographs is such a nice way to make contact. While Muslims are often offended by anyone trying to take their picture (so just don't, they fear it will steal their soul) other Indians are comfortable. So I'd sit on the dirt next to a female fruit seller and we might exchange gestures about each other's clothing or jewelry. Children are often the easiest to establish contact with. I make a funny face or join in a game they are playing or show them photos I've brought from home of my cat and dog. And, of course, everyone giggles when they see digital images of themselves.

After our lunch at Rashmi Guest House’s rooftop restaurant, we headed for the airport. I was trailing behind DH and the porter carrying our luggage through the twisting back streets and I paused for one final photo.

I looked up and they were gone. After moments of panic, I tried to get my bearings but in the maze of streets and overhung roofs that blocked the sun, I couldn’t tell which way the river was (I knew the street was the opposite direction from the river). I asked several people and finally made my way to the street and then located the car. By this time our driver had gone looking for me. By the time he returned we had exactly 45 minutes to make the trip to the airport. The traffic in the old city was maddeningly slow and cows do not countenance being displaced from where they are lying in the road.

We arrived at the airport in time to check in with Jet Airways...and learn that the flight was delayed two hours. We asked if a complimentary upgrade was available back to Delhi since we were flying on to Bangkok business class. Yes, they could accommodate us since they were severely overbooked in coach. The flight was actually delayed four hours. It didn’t matter to us, just meant a reduce layover in Delhi. All went smoothly, we waited in Delhi five hours and then took the midnight flight from Delhi to Bangkok. The flight was about five hours so I slept quickly.

Bangkok
Arrival and immigration were a breeze. Metered cab cost us 340bt. to the Four Seasons. Upon arrival we were invited to sit in the serene lobby and have some tea and they would try to get our room prepared early. I called Guenmai to confirm we arrived and set up our meeting. By 9 am we were in our room unpacking. I found the room most pleasing.
Ample size (42m), a beautiful traditional mural above the bed and inset in a wood frame. Wonderful bathroom, closets and full length mirrors galore. The room has the same ambience as the lobby, not showy or high tech but intimate and warm. (Yea, I finally get to weigh in on the great high end Bangkok hotel debate.)



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Old Mar 19th, 2008, 07:37 PM
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Bangkok
Arrival and immigration were a breeze. Metered cab cost us 340bt. to the Four Seasons. Upon arrival we were invited to sit in the serene lobby and have some tea and they would try to get our room prepared early. I called Guenmai to confirm we arrived and set up our meeting. By 9 am we were in our room unpacking.

I found the room most pleasing.
Ample size (42m), a beautiful traditional mural above the bed and inset in a wood frame. Wonderful bathroom, closets and full length mirrors galore. The room has the same ambience as the lobby, not showy or high tech but intimate and warm. (Yea, I finally get to weigh in on the great high end Bangkok hotel debate.)

Guenmai met us in the FS lobby midmorning and we walked to ErawinTea Room for a spot of tea and talk. Despite the fact that G was leaving Bangkok later that day, she stil made time to take us around. She went with us to Cotton House and taking the skytrain and river ferry helped me remember these routes from my trip seven years ealier. As most of you know, you can’t bop in to Cotton House and have things done quickly. Da took me around to find fabric for pants and top to go under my new Indian jacket; there wasn’t enough yardage of the perfect fabric and nothing else came close. So at least I met Da and know how to prepare for a successful trip to CH.

Since we were in the neighborhood we had lunch at China House in the Oriental. The dramatically beautiful center room of the restaurant was reserved so we sat nearby. Lunch was very good and pricy. While at lunch we called Lilly to arrange a pick-up. While we waited for SJ’s cr to collect us, I had time to soak up the lobby atmosphere of the Oriental. It was striking but a bit showy for my taste. Of the various old world (read British colonial) grand hotels I’ve stayed at in Asia, The Metropole in Hanoi is at the top of my list.

My first experience at SJ was quite a success. I had in mind a ruby pendant or a pair of pink sapphire earrings. I left with a pair of earrings of pink sapphire cabachions in white gold, in a David Yurman or John Henry styel/setting. And...a knock your socks off sapphire and diamond bracelet (all 22 oval sapphires were even in color and consistency. I’m so fortunate that DH likes to be involved in these purchases.

Don’t recall where we had dinner but I learned I ordered incorrectly. I requested not spicy; I should have said no chilis. By not spicy the cook eliminated all the spices that give Thai food its distinctive subtle blend of layered flavors. The new night market is IMO memorable as the site of the most gaudy array of cheap, mass produced Chinese junk and poor knock-offs. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Day 28 -last day of trip
We had nice buffet breakfast in an outdoor courtyard with fish pond and cool greenery at FS . One fish jumped up out of the water about 3 feet, for reasons only a fish can know. We took a cab to Chinatown. We tried to follow a walking tour I had but couldn’t get our bearings. So we just meandered. We stumbled on a temple off an alley. It was impressive to see modern Thais in urban work clothes, making offerings as part of their daily life. After more walking we tuk tuked it to the Emerald Buddha for a look. In terms of artistic value, I thought other Buddhas in Bangkok and Burma more finely wrought.

We got to Harmonique only to find they were on vacation for a week. So we ended up back at the Oriental in their patio restaurant overlooking the Caho Praya River and its commerce.

We walked to the market just south of the India Regent Hotel. They had the best selection of inexpensive cotton casual clothing I’d seen in my two days. We made our way to a black market money changer to exchange our leftover rupees. The place was recommended by our hotel so we felt it was safe. Inside were what appeared to be very young attractive “working girls” exchanging all manner of currency for baht. Nearby is Marlai Phanda, a good one-stop shop for gifts.

Dinner at the Spice House in the FS was excellent. Wish we’d gone ther both nights.

Day 29 Home
No need to describe how LONG the flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles is or feels. But it was comfortable enough and I was eager to get home after such a long and satisfying sojourn in Asia.

I have photos to organize and post from India but it will be several weeks before I can get to them. Right now I have to pack, we leave for the Yucatan in 32 hours!


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Old Mar 19th, 2008, 08:21 PM
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thanks for the wonderful report....i enjoyed it all...

bob
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Old Mar 20th, 2008, 01:01 AM
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An excellent report which I have very much enjoyed reading thankyou . Glad you like the Four S in Bangkok .
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Old Mar 20th, 2008, 06:29 AM
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Thoroughly enjoyed the report, Robbietravels. Great detail!

I had forgotten that I ate at the Spice House at the FS when I was in Bangkok in 2004 and also found it to be excellent-I had the best (and biggest helping of) Pad Thai of my life there.

Thanks for such an entertaining, informative report!
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Old Mar 20th, 2008, 07:13 AM
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Robbie, just read your report from start to finish - we are considering a trip to western Rajasthan along with a stop at Varanasi for next February. Your fabulous detailed account will certainly be factored into our decision-making.

It seems like Compass handled most aspects of your trip but not all - was it because they were not competitive on price for certain places or for some other reason?
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Old Mar 20th, 2008, 08:52 PM
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Quick reply to Craig: I think it has to do with the nature of how things work in India. If I were just going to a confined area I would consider a regional company. With a national company there are vast differences in the way each component agency (from each city) does business (i.e. their level of attentiveness, their level of unbridled greed; their knowledge of and comfort with dealing with Westerners). While Compass performed adequately, I'm not sure other big companies would do any better.
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