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, April 23, 2010

A Paradise Called Maldives

For me, the pictures of those blue sapphire waters and tiny islands have always been mesmerising. Those pictures must have tingled something inside you also. Many a times you would have thought of going there and cherishing them with your own eyes, but could not. So, what do you do to go to Maldives when you know that lodging costs there are very high? An easy answer comes- cruise to Maldives. And this was exactly what I did. A short trip to Male was exciting, and seaplane ride to southern twin islands of Rangali was an experience of lifetime. And all this without actually staying anywhere on Maldivian land! In fact, this was a journey where every single minute turned into a happening statement.

Journey to Male
It was 24 hours' fun-filled journey from Cochin port to Maldives. Last December, Cochin became the first Indian city to steam off an international cruise, when Greek company Louis Cruises launched its Aquamarine ship from here. This ship sailed from Cochin on a three-night trip to Maldives. It was getting dark when the ship steamed off on a fine Wednesday evening. Our troop was on the sun deck as the ship started. As it left the port situated on Wellington island of Cochin at a snail's pace, a light wind started to blow. The ship was coming out the bay into Arabian Sea. The lights of city of Cochin soon started getting distant and ship headed right into darkness of sea, but there was a new wave of excitement building up inside me.
It was sunset time the next evening, when Aquamarine anchored just outside Male - the capital of Maldives. Saffron hues of sun going down into sea made the skyline of Male look even more beautiful. Male is situated on a tiny island not measuring more than 1.5 square kilometres. Boats, ferries and catamarans connect Male with other nearby islands of the country, and there are seaplanes to connect with islands situated far off. It was later in my trip that I realized how exciting and memorable a seaplane ride could turn out to be.

Three hours in Male
Male island is so small that one can circumvent it in less than an hour. It is located at the southern edge of North Male Atoll. The ferry from ship dropped us on the waterfront where most of the government buildings and agencies were located. Though, Male International Airport is on adjacent Hulhule Island which includes a seaplane base for internal transportation.
Three hours of easy walking on the island was enough to give you some everlasting memories. The presidential palace, a historic graveyard, the Islamic centre, vegetable market, fish market, lightened-up showrooms, busy roads, costly cars on streets, cosy restaurants - all the signs of a great city life, but yet a place where peace seemed to engulf you all the time. And it did give me creeps that I was on a tiny mass of land in the middle of a vast stretch of water with no imaginable limits. What a simple life, yet difficult!! Maldivians have to export their drinking water from neighbouring countries as what they get from sea around them is only salty water. And there are just two good hospitals in Male itself, and nowhere else on a country comprising of 1100 islands is another hospital. Though, dispensaries are there elsewhere.

Heaven, the next morning
After three hours on Male, we ferried back to our cruise ship. A little excitement had set in already, but none from our little group had imagined what amazement lay in store for us the next morning. Even if we would have been briefed about it, we could not have pictured it, because what we witnessed was just unimaginable.

The early morning, we were out in the sea on a catamaran. Vijay from Louis Cruises was tight-lipped about where we were headed to, until we got to Hulhule Island for a seaplane ride to twin islands of Rangali. Our 18-seater seaplane was soon air-borne, and what we were witnessing just a kilometre below was nothing less than paradise. Everybody on board was in awe. In sprawling blue waters were spread tiny bluish-green coral islands- their white sand shores seemingly melting into crystal clear waters of ocean. It looked like a divine fusion between land and water. And since most of the islands of Maldives are transformed into resorts, we could see a maze of hut-like structures spread right into heart of sea. It was a sight to behold. And that breathtaking view has not left my mind since. Thanks to Ally Ahmad of Crown Tours for making this happen.

Rangali where luxury is mortified
If this 35-minutes journey was a lifetime experience, then spending four hours in Conrad Resort on twin Rangali islands was no less. This resort belongs to Hilton group, is surrounded by a turquoise lagoon, and has twice been awarded as the best hotel in the world. The two islands are situated at some distance from each other, and there is a platform in the middle of both where seaplanes land to drop guests. From this platforms, two wooden footbridge arch away about 100 metres each side to embrace the islands. On one island there are elegant beach villas apart from spa villas with private treatment rooms out in the sea at the tip of the island, while on the other island are 50 water villas set on stilts over the sea. These water villas are pure mortification of luxury and come in four different categories based on facilities, size and tariff. 

18K dollars per night!!
We couldn't believe our years when we were told that during the peak season the premium water villas (there are only two in this category) are priced at US $18,000 per night. Woooopp... But, when we saw this villa, we were stunned. It was luxury written all over. Pure elegance! Private poll opening on one side to the sea; private open air jacuzzi; a bed that revolves 360 degrees; a telescope in bedroom; plazma TVs in every room, even in bathrooms!! That was amazing.

Itha- The Underwater Restaurant
Food lovers can find themselves at home among Conrad Maldives' seven world-class restaurants, while over 6,000 bottles of wine await discovery in underground Wine Cellar. We had food at one of the restaurants, and believe me, I had never had more delicious food than what I munched there. Conrad Resort can be foodies' paradise. And, courtesy Ali Ahmad of Crown Tours, we had the opportunity to enter the world's only all-glass under-sea restaurant. Spiral staircase took us down to a wonderland where a glass wall separated us from depths of sea. We could see all the marine life around us as a snorkeler would do. Well, dining cost there was 100 dollars per person.

Beaches make you fall in love with them
What you fall in love with in Maldives are beaches of soft white sand fringed by palms leading into crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean. A dive in nice warm water refreshes you to your core. One can dive or snorkel in world's most remarkable waters on unspoilt reefs.

There, we just had four hours which seemed to pass quickly. It was time to go back to our ship. The journey back to Hulhule island on seaplane was not that exciting this time, for we were returning back from paradise leaving our heart out there. It was as if we were going to miss something very badly for the rest of our lives. And how true that feeling was!!!

And something about Aquamarine
It is a seven-deck ship with all the modern amenities and entertainment shows on board. The Lounge on 5th deck can be said to be the most happening place where every evening a music n' dance show enthralls the audience. The show introduces you to skills of some wonderful artistes from Ukraine, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Philippines; and it is a place where all the cultures of world seem to converge on one stage.
Then, there is Moonlight Disco where nights seem to melt into mornings. And for those who don't mind spending and trying their luck, a casino on fourth deck awaits them. Apart from these, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a spa centre, and facilities like ping pong and cricket are there for you to spend your leisure time on board.

What you like the most is the variety of food on board. There is a multi-cuisine restaurant which serves buffet and a la' carte meals, and those meals are prepared by master chefs keeping Indian customers in mind. Apart from veg and non-veg varieties, you can savour Jain food also. Whereas the ambiance of this exquisitely decorated restaurant soothes your aesthetic sense, the quality and taste of food never fails to satisfy your taste buds.

Text and Photos by Ajay Garg

Amazing Temples of Bali

The Rock-cut Niches at Gunung Kawi by the River Pakerison
If you say Bali is land of temples, then it would be no exaggeration. Most of the people in Bali follows Hinduism.. owing to long contacts with Indian sub-continent since first century AD. Many religious and cultural traditions are rooted into the times when influence of Indian culture was at its highest in 10th century AD. There are a number of ancient Hindu temples in Bali whose architecture leaves one spellbound, and whose ambiance is peaceful enough to send one into a state of meditation.

My second morning at Ubud had started on a high note, and by the evening I was exhausted by extensive sight-seeing on the island. But, there is no denying the fact that in the evening when I lay in my bed relaxing my fatigued limbs, I was mentally refreshed, excited and enriched. By the time I returned to Ubud in the night, I was already in love with Bali. Yes, that is the magic this tiny island can cast upon anybody.

The one-day trip begins
My one-day journey through time had started after breakfast the second day. The cab picked me up from in front of my home-stay. There were already three fellow vagabonds in cab, who by the evening had become good friends (I am still in contact with them). Our full day excursion of the island included visits to many temples including the cave temple of Goa Gajah and the biggest temple of Pura Besakih.

The Cave Temple
Goa Gajah is an ancient temple built in 9th century, where main shrine is inside a cave. Goa Gajah literally means elephant cave. The facade of the cave is a relief of various creatures and demons carved right into the rock at the cave entrance. This temple is not situated very far from Ubud. It was the first temple on our day long trip. And there were a couple of more situated here and there on the island.When you visit temples of Bali you are required to respect the local customs. Proper dress is encouraged. If you wear long pants or a long skirt you will need a sash tied around your waist. If you are wearing shorts you will need a sarong. It is a wrap around the waist which is of ankle-length. It is same as dhoti in India. These can typically be hired at the temple itself.

Rock-cut shrines near river Pakerison
From Gajah Goa, we moved on to Gunung Kawi. It is an 11th century temple complex in Tampak Siring area of Bali. It is situated north-east of Ubud and is located on the river Pakerison. The complex comprises of 10 rock-cut candi - meaning shrines - carved into the cliff face. They stand in 23 feet high sheltered niches cut into the cliff face. These monuments are thought to be dedicated to King Anak Wungsu of the Udayana dynasty and his favourite queens.

Pura Tirta Empul
Our next stop in our day-long trip was Pura Tirta Empul. This temples is built around a sacred spring named Tampak Siring. An inscription dates the spring all the way back to 926AD; and there are fine carvings and Garudas on the courtyard buildings. The temple and its two bathing spots have been used by the Balinese for over a thousand years for good health and prosperity; as the spring water really does have the power to cure! Regular purification ceremonies also take place here. Artists at Tampak Siring produce marvellous bone and ivory carvings. Both sites are open daily.

Mother Temple of Besakih
After having a feel of these ancient temples of Bali, we were headed to the most important, the largest and the holiest temple of Agama Hindu Dharma in Bali. This is called the Mother Temple of Besakih, or Pura Besakih. Situated in the village of Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung in north-eastern Bali, this temple probably dates back to the fourteenth century. It is built on the southern slopes of Mount Agung, the main volcano of Bali.
This temple is actually a complex made up of 22 temples that sit on parallel ridges. It has stepped terraces and flights of stairs which ascend to a number of courtyards and brick gateways that lead up to the symbolic centre or main sanctuary of the complex. This centre is called Pura Penataran Agung. All this is aligned along a single axis and designed to lead the spiritual upward and closer to the mountain which is considered sacred. The lotus throne or padmasana is the symbolic center of the main sanctuary and ritual focus of the entire complex which dates to around 17th century.

This complex is so huge that you need to have at least one full day to actually let it sink in you. The taxi does not take you right up to the main entrance. In fact, you have to walk uphill a metallic road for about 2 kilometres. This road is lined with numerous shops and houses. Most of the shops sell prasada, or the offering for the gods. This walk uphill can prove to be a good test for your lungs. Once you arrive at the temple, you may come face-to-face with touts who ask for money to let you go to the main shrine. They are obviously in connivance with the guards. I refused to pay anything, but one guard let me in after knowing that I was a Hindu. So, I could go to the main shrine as a devotee rather than a tourist. Nonetheless, it is must-visit place, and the whole atmosphere is pious with even toddlers clad in traditional attires. The complex reverberate with sounds of chantings of compositions from Ramayana, and this place was successful in creating a long-lasting impression upon me.

Text and Photos by Ajay Garg

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