Travelling Is Life

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page

Travelling Is Beginning

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step

Travelling Is Involvement

A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles

Travelling Is Exploring

Tourists don’t know where they have been, travellers don’t know where they are going

Travelling Is Observation

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things

Friday, December 26, 2014

My Veligandu Sojourn

It is my second day at Veligandu Island in Maldives, and I have already fallen in love with this tiny piece of land. A narrow and not-so-long strip of pristine white sand, dotted with beach villas and water villas on its circumference: the whole island has got an air of tranquility about it. Rightly so, as the clear, greenish-blue waters around this land mass are so peaceful that their occasional roaring comes to your ears as a lullaby being sung by Mother Nature. No wonder I find so many European travellers having a great time here. Europeans, I have always found, love to stay at places where they can not only have peace and privacy, but also get some sun and a rush of adrenaline whenever they wish to do so. Well, I am also like Europeans as far as their preferences are concerned.

My first reaction about Veligandu
The moment I had stepped on this island yesterday, what immediately had attracted me was a sense of serenity about it. It did not come to me as a tourist destination at all. A long strip of white sand at the southern end of it and a broad beach extending northward! A not-so-overly-crowded place as I must have imagined. Despite it being a narrow island, it has enough space to roam about idly. It had felt as if I was going to stay for the next few days at a place that had been eagerly awaiting me. A home, Yes! Yet far removed from the daily chores at home! For its rustic charm and an undisturbed atmosphere, Veligandu presents itself as a tropical Maldivian island in its truest sense where there are enough sun and sand to soak in, and where one can unburden oneself and feel rejuvenated by the time it is time to go back.
I had arrived at Veligandu Island Resort before noon after a 20-minute seaplane ride from Hulhule and then a scintillating 5-minute motorboat ride from somewhere in the middle of the sea. But wait! Did I say 'before noon'? Or was it 'after noon'? It was before noon by my watch, but it was after noon at Veligandu. Okay, let me clear the mystery. The resort at Veligandu keeps itself one hour ahead of Malé time. Why? Just to save on daylight time. Good!! It means an early start to your day and longer day hours to spend lying idle on the long stretches of sand.

They are environment-friendly
Well, not just the daylight, the resort people seem committed to save everything around them - the corals, the waters, the environment! For, they have got a water treatment plant, a sewage treatment facility and a greenhouse on the island itself. So, don't be surprised when you find two long glass bottles lying on the top of the kitchenette bureau when your butler ushers you into the cozy atmosphere of your mildly but beautifully decorated abode. Water in these bottles is a product of the local plant and is called the Veligandu Water. But before you step into that cozy villa of yours for the next few days, have you made sure that you have set your watches right to keep pace with the environment-loving people at the resort?

It was my third day there
So, my love affair with Veligandu continues for my third day here. Some light rain showers in the afternoon have indeed enhanced the romance quotient of the island, and it has looked more beautiful throughout the day with an overcast sky and a light breeze caressing the flora found in abundance on the island. And the night has been splendid like the two previous nights.
I am back in my room now after a most romantic candle light dinner and just going back through the events of the day, thanking my tour operators Crown Tours Maldives, for suggesting me Veligandu Island in the first place and subsequently arranging my stay here. Little I had known in the morning that my third day at the island was going to turn out to be a romantic one in its own sense. But that is how the day has kept unfolding before me and, by now, has cemented its place in one secure corner of my mind as one of the never-forgettable days of my life.

And the spa treatment
It had all started with a short time spent at the Duniye Spa located on east coast of the island itself. My package had a 15-minute free spa voucher that could be redeemed any time within the first three days of my arrival. The spa treatment was a rejuvenating one and it amply set my mood for the rest of the day. The ambience inside spa rooms built over water is simple yet soothing, and the whole atmosphere there seems to breathe a new life into you; enhanced by the ever-smiling Balinese masseurs, whose deft hands gradually pamper you into a world of calmness.
    As soon as I stepped into my room after getting a refreshing spa treatment, I got a call from Mr. Fathuhulla, the general manager of the Island. He suggested a beach dinner to me, which I readily accepted. I had already registered myself for the Sunset Punch Dolphin-spotting Cruise, and while agreeing for beach dinner, I knew in my heart that it was actually going to be a different evening for me.

A date with blue dolphins
My evening started with romancing with dolphins in deep blue waters. The 1.5-hour cruise started exactly at 17.45 hours. We all were perched on upper deck of a motorized boat, and soon were on our way to spot dolphins in their natural habitat and to have an unobstructed view of the Sun setting in the horizon. Rifaath, the dolphin-expert of the resort, had told me that they spotted dolphins more often than not. And we indeed spotted dolphins! And not just spotted them, we kind of played with them. My god, they were there in abundance – leaping in unison, answering to our clapping and racing along the boat. And, those reddish yellow hues of the evening sky creating a magnificent backdrop to this all!! Nothing could be more exhilarating, nothing could be more romantic than this.

And then the Beach Dinner
The candle light dinner on beach has been a perfect finish to a day filled with heart-warming activities. A table set in middle of the beach, a bunch of florescent bulbs tucked on the coastline, water level increasing gradually as the evening darkened, a view of the dimly-lit water villas in the distance, a specially cooked seafood platter with smooth American white wine, a personalized attention, and a perfect solitude to heighten your senses - what more could one ask for! It has been truly a different experience, never to be missed while one is at Veligandu.

1. Veligandu is an island in the North Ari atoll of Maldives
2. It is approachable by a 20-minute seaplane flight from Malé.
3. The island is situated in an area where dolphins are found in abundance.

Text and Photos by Ajay Garg

Saturday, November 03, 2012

A Visual Treat From Maui Island of Hawaii

Hawaii... the land of sun, sand and volcanoes....Here are some more photographs exclusively from the Island of Maui in Hawaii. Maui Island is also known as the Valley Isle, and it boasts of some lovely landscapes, fine sandy beaches, amazing lifestyle, fresh sea-food restaurants and charming people. The climate is pleasantly warm, and the overall feeling is really cool.

As far as Hawaii is concerned, it is an archipelago comprising of volcanic islands in northern Pacific Ocean. The islands of Hawaii present some really amazing sights to their visitors. The eight islands at south-eastern end of the archipelago are the most frequently visited ones; and amongst them Maui (the Valley Isle), Kauai (the Garden Isle), Oahu (the Gathering Place) and Hawaii (the Big Island) are the most scenic. While Niihau (the Forbidden Isle) is also very scenic but it is privately owned.

Come n' roam about in one of the most lovely places on earth through this series of pictures by David Hellard  of Recalibration Photography 
Maui is the second largest island of Hawaii, and certainly one of the most beautiful islands
Maui island has a very interesting topography, ranging from high mountains to deep valleys  
Maui has many valleys carved into volcanic mountains, thus earning the name- the Valley Isle
The Maui Desert. It used to be a forest before it was reduced to grassland due to erosion
Sailing around Maui can be fun. Turquoise water offers opportunities for diving-enthusiasts 
Charter boats are also available in Maui for sailing along the coast or between the islands
Maui shoreline is rugged at places, thus forming many natural harbours there for small ships 
The sky at night can be a lovely sight in Hawaii. A sky painted with varying shades of clouds!
Hawaii is also home to a diverse fauna. Introduced from India, Myna is on all main islands
There are many species of land snails in Hawaii, and the garden snails are one of those
Introduced in Hawaii around 1930, Red-crested Cardinal is easily seen in parks and lawns
House Finch, known as Papayabird in Hawaii, is found in both coastal and mountainous areas
Mama's Fish House is voted one the best fresh fish restaurants. They have an enviable menu
Be it food or drinks, you are really swayed away by the taste and hospitality at Mama's House
The restaurant was established in 1973 and has won praise from travellers all over the world
Mama's is situated on north shore of Maui Island, and has a very tranquil sea and fine sand
Mama's was started by Christenson family which happened to sail across Pacific in 1950's
The family embraced the old Polynesian lifestyle and discovered the ways of preparing fish
Apart from a restaurant, Mama's Fish House also houses an enviable inn with lovely rooms
The Haleakala Observatory is a sight to behold when it is covered with thick white clouds
A clean winding road takes you up to the first astronomical observatory located in Hawaii
Haleakala is situated on the island of Maui. It is pioneer in activities related  to astronomy
Situated at 3050 metres above sea level, it has excellent astronomical seeing conditions
It is sheer fun to go all the way up to the observatory and stay at the summit  for a while

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Laos Visa-on-Arrival- An Authentic Account

Having travelled a number of countries, some of those even more than thrice, I can safely say that Visa-on-Arrival system of Laos has been the smoothest one I have ever experienced. We had crossed into Laos from Thailand via Friendship Bridge, and came back via same route; although the modes of transportation were different in each instance. It was a shuttle train that took us to Laos, and a shuttle bus that deposited us back in Thailand eight days later. But, both the entry and exit procedures had been a cakewalk for us.

Train from Bangkok to Nong Khai
Nong Khai railway station is small but very neat and clean one with all possible amenities
View of Nong Khai station and the road beyond from the window of international train
It was the last week of September this year. We three friends boarded the train number 69 from Hua Lamphong Station of Bangkok for Nong Khai- the border town of Thailand and one of the most popular gateways to Laos. The tickets for this sleeper train had been booked on internet in advanced, and it too had proved to be a smooth process. The arrival time at Nong Khai of this most-preferred train of foreigners is 8.25 in the morning, but we had been told to expect a delay of around 2 hours as it is a single line and tracks on this route are being re-laid. And our train was actually delayed by almost 3 hours when it reached its final destination.
If you are travelling by train no. 69 and wish to catch the connecting international shuttle train from Nong Khai to Thanaleng station in Laos, but are worried about the delay; then you need not be. The shuttle train will wait for the arrival of this train, as most of the passengers it carries onto the other side of border arrive by train number 69 only.

Shuttle Train Tickets at Nong Khai Station
This two-coach international shuttle train takes you to the other side of Thai-Lao border
Yours truly...just before boarding the shuttle train. It was an amazing experience for me
Train has a total 80 seats. The seats are comfortable, though all of them are rarely occupied
Nong Khai railway station is exactly 2.6 kilometres from the Friendship Bridge, while the border lies somewhere in the middle of the bridge (or for that matter, middle of the river) that is 1.1 kilometres long. Thanaleng, the lone railway station of Laos, lies further 2.3 kilometres away. So, it was a 6 kilometres train journey that took us from one country to another in a matter of just 10 minutes. The second class train journey cost us 20 Baht, and tickets were readily available at the station itself.
No worries! They don’t start until all passengers have bought their tickets, cleared immigration and boarded the train. When we took this journey, there were not more than 40 passengers on board the two-coach shuttle. So, relax and enjoy the moment when train crosses over to Laos from Thailand.

Immigration Procedure at Nong Khai Railway Station
There is just one small booth that controls immigration process at Nong Khai railway station
A single person was manning the booth. They told us it is same daily as there is never a rush
The immigration was also a very smooth process at Nong Khai. They stamped us out in almost no time. There was only one official there who was handling the immigration formalities. We just waited a couple of minutes for our turn, as there was a small queue at the immigration booth. And when we were stamped out, we hopped on to one of the two coaches of the train.
There is no Visa-on-Arrival facility at Nong Khai station. What they have there is an immigration booth where your passport is stamped in or out. So, if you plan to arrive directly at Nong Khai station from Laos on your return journey, then you must possess a valid Thai Visa on your passport. Or else, you must return via shuttle bus that leaves you directly at Nong Khai Immigration where they provide V-O-A if you are eligible for it.

Train Journey and Visa-on-Arrival at Thanaleng
Just after the shuttle train left Nong Khai station. It eventually runs on the Friendship Bridge
And the train passes through the Friendship Bridge. It is still the Thailand side of the border
The Mekong river separates Thailand and Laos. The border is somewhere near the blue flag 
We reach Laos. Flags are the only indicators to tell us that we are now in another country 
Thanaleng station in Laos is not a passenger train station as such; it is just a terminal for the international train where one can avail of Visa-on-Arrival facility. Visa forms and immigration slips were available at Visa-on-Arrival window. The visa fee was different for different countries but the details were not displayed anywhere there. We had to ask about it, and they told us it was 40 USD for Indian nationals. We just submitted our forms with our passports and paid the fee; and within 5 minutes each one of us got our passports back with one-month visa affixed on them.
Thanaleng is the only station in Laos, which receives and flags off just a pair of trains daily 
Visa is issued at the first window in arrival area. It is the busiest window when train arrives
The submission of visa form and fee, and collection of passport are done at the same place
The V-O-A counter is the first one of the four counters in a row, and has two openings. At the first opening, a person collects your passport, filled-in visa form and immigration slip, and requisite fee. After verifying your details, he pushes your passport and fee receipt to his colleague sitting next to him. The second person affixes visa sticker on your passport and also stamp you in. Your name is announced at the second opening and you receive your passport back. You need not go to any of the three immigration windows, as you are already stamped in at V-O-A window. The immigration windows are for those who already have a Lao visa on their passport. 
It was totally hassle-free. And the staff was friendly. They didn’t even check our accommodation reservation. And also, none of the passengers alighted at Thanaleng had to pay any money other than the required visa fee, as it had been mentioned by many travellers in their accounts on internet. No stamping-in fee, no service fee… absolutely nothing. So, relax! Just take your passport back and head towards taxi stand.

From Thanaleng Station to Vientiane City
A make-shift counter for booking your transportation to Vientiane. Rates are displayed there
It was one of the last two taxis available by the time we got our visa. It charged us 400 Baht 
Just outside Thanaleng station, there was a taxi stand to take us to Vientiane. They had a counter in the station premises itself where one could book a vehicle of one’s choice. The non-AC but spacious pick-up van charged 300 Baht for 8 persons while air-conditioned taxi suited for 8 passengers charged 400 Baht for the 20 kms run to the capital city of Vientiane. 
Just before leaving for city. We had three more travellers to divide the fare amongst us
Since people arrive at Thanaleng station from Thailand only, they are quoted fare in Thai Baht. We were little slow in going through visa process, so by the time we got our visas there was no pick-up van left. We had to settle for a taxi. Luckily, there were three more people who agreed to share taxi with us. So, it was around 70 Baht per person, which was not bad.
There is a bus service too for Vientiane. But for that, you have to walk a few hundred metres till you reach the main road, and wait there for the bus that comes from Buddha Park. The bus takes you to Talat Sao (the Morning Market) bus station and a ticket costs just 5000 Kip. If you don’t have Kip, they will ask for 20 Baht, which is okay as far as the conversion rate is concerned. At an exchange counter, 20 Thai Baht will fetch you around 5200 Kip. But, keep in mind that pick-up van or taxi will drop you at your hotel or guesthouse, while bus leaves you at Talat Sao. From Talat Sao, you end up paying around 10000 Kip (roughly 40 Baht) per person to your choice of destination. So, if you could form a group of 7-8 people before leaving the station, then a taxi or a pick-up van is cheaper and more convenient option.

From Vientiane to Friendship Bridge
The air-conditioned bus from Talat Sao bus station of Vientiane to the Friendship Bridge
On our journey back to Thailand, we chose another mode of transportation across the border- the shuttle bus. As expected, tuk-tuk charged 10000 Kip per person from our guesthouse to Talat Sao bus station. This bus station is right in the middle of city. From there, you can hop onto a public bus or hire a tuk-tuk for Friendship Bridge border. We preferred bus, which leaves for border every 30 minutes or so. It was a very modern air-conditioned bus, and the 20-minute ride till border was very comfortable. The bus left us right in front of Lao immigration offices.
A tuk-tuk would ask for 1,00,000 Kip from Talat Sao to the border, but we had been told that they could settle for 50,000 Kip. But a bus is far better option, which charges just 6000 Kip per person. You can’t get tuk-tuk for the border from just anywhere in Vientiane; you have to come to Talat Sao. Be wise! There is no need to pay huge amount to tuk-tuk when you have a far economical and convenient bus service. The bus conductors don’t understand English, so tell them you have to go to Mittraphap (Thai and Lao word for Friendship).

Lao Immigration at Friendship Bridge
Return journey to Nong Khai. This time it is shuttle bus that takes us from Laos to Thailand 
Near the border on the bridge. Lao flag on the left; a little further Thai flag on the right side
The stamping out process was completed without any problem. There were 4 counters; and since apart from travellers, hundreds of Thai and Lao workers crossed the border bridge every day, the queues at each counter were little longer than what we had experienced at Nong Khai. After been stamped out, we could see a ticket counter just a few paces ahead. The international shuttle bus ticket was 4000 Kip, but as we were not left with any Kip we had to pay in Thai Baht…and they charged 20 Baht per person. 
The rail line separates from road on the bridge. All road transport stops when train passes
The shuttle bus is nearing Thai Immigration. All the visa-on-arrival formalities are done here
In no time, we were on the other side of the bridge, where there were long queues at the immigration counters to stamp you in. The two of us three already had Thai visa, so we were stamped-in easily. Since one of us had to obtain Visa-on-arrival (Indian nationals are entitled to V-O-A in Thailand) it took him some time to fill in the form and deposit fee etc. But still, it was hassle-free and we were again in Nong Khai from where we had our train back to Bangkok in the evening.
The international shuttle bus runs every 10-15 minutes and takes not more than 2-3 minutes to take you to Thai side of the bridge. The conversion rate is very bad for bus ticket. It should be around 16 Baht for a 4000 Kip ticket. So, better keep at least 10,000 Kip per person if you wish to take bus from Talat Sao and then international shuttle bus from the bridge.

Text and Photos by Ajay Garg

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