Monday, October 22, 2018

Thailand travel tips by an Indian | An essential travel guide to Thailand for a two week trip

There was so much I had heard and knew about Thailand before I visited, but when I was about to go, I was still so nervous. Considering it was my first international trip, and a self-planned one at that, a lot of research went into the smallest things. I thought I'll compile a post to answer some commonly asked questions that would help you plan your trip.


The first question asked was - how much money did I take with me, what were my major expenses, what was the entire trip cost, isn't Thailand cheap... 

Let me begin with the entire trip cost - 1,10,000 INR, out of which 40,000 INR was my flight tickets (which included seven flights considering I went from Goa and also took connecting flights). Flights: Goa to Chaing Mai (with a layover in Bangkok), Chiang Rai to Phuket, Krabi to Bangkok and Bangkok to Goa (via half a day stop in Mumbai).

Where I made mistakes? We booked tickets just two months before the trip. As a result of which, my round trip in itself costed me way more than what it actually is if booked way in advance. Also, since I live in Goa, I had to additionally spend on my flight to Mumbai (both the times).

Secondly, the internal flights, which we booked to save time, eventually came up to be quite expensive. When we were booking it, it seemed pretty cheap, but while we paid, we ended up paying way extra (because of INR to THB conversion charges, baggage fees and airport taxis), which can be easily avoided.

One of the two pools at Railay Princess Beach Resort in Krabi


There were two things I was terribly worried about - visa and currency exchange. Considering I had to go to Bombay to get my visa, I decided to opt for the visa on arrival option. But what worried me was, just in case I did not get a visa (which is highly unlikely), I wouldn't be able to go ahead with the trip. My flights and hotels were booked for in full. But I did manage to get my visa effortlessly.

There was one slight confusion though. Since we were flying to Chiang Mai via Bangkok, we assumed we had to get our visa in Chiang Mai which was our first destination. While trying to check-in at the Bangkok airport, we were told that we had to get a visa right there. We were in panic mode, because our next flight (connecting flight to Chiang Mai) was in less than two hours, and we couldn't afford to miss that. We hurried up and got our stamps!

There's nothing much to worry about when it comes to getting your visa in Thailand. As long as you look fine, have the documents and the money, they will let you in. The visa fee is TBH 2000 which needs to be paid for in cash at the counter.

What documents do you require for visa? Passport valid for six months, a couple of photos (3.5 cm X 4.5 cm with a white background), return flight booking, hotel bookings and a spending amount of 20000 THB (which could be cash, forex card or international credit/debit card). Please carry a pen to fill your forms and zoom past quickly! 

A bay we stopped at while kayaking in Krabi

Currency exchange:

Another of my major worry was currency. I was told about the scams that happen in Thailand. You also tend to lose money in currency exchange. I still haven't figured the best way to do it, but I shall tell you what I did. (In case you know of better ways of doing it, please comment below and help me and other readers).

I got a huge chunk of money exchanged locally. And also got a substantial amount in USD as safety money. However, I didn't get the best exchange rate for THB at that time. I did it last moment, so may be doing it earlier would have been better. Secondly, I underestimated my expenses, so when I was there, I exhausted my cash within a week. As a result of which I had to retort to swiping cards or withdrawing money from the local ATMs.

The downsides of withdrawing money there: Finding an international bank is the key! Which I did mange to find in a few places. But if you don't find it, you end up losing quite a bit of money in currency exchange because the banks charge you a heavy fee. It's easier to find ATMs in compact and touristy places, but it gets tougher in larger cities. All touristy places have a currency exchange place, where you can exchange your currency for THB.

Our cozy room in Railay Princess Beach Resort in Krabi


Why Thailand for two weeks? Chaaaang whaatttt? OMG you didn't go to Pattaya? Oh man why didn't you go to tiger kingdom? Wait, you didn't eat cockroaches and crocodiles? Why did you stay in Phi Phi, it's a day trip!

So many questions asked about our itinerary! How did we plan and why did we chose the places we chose? Let' start with Chiang Mai, which was one of the focus of the trip considering it's so rich in culture, has a great coffee culture, comprises of beautiful architecture and has so much food to gorge on! We spent a major chunk of our first week there!

Then we headed to Chiang Rai, which was a few hours away from Chiang Mai. Many asked us why we didn't just do a day trip and save time! I mean, why should we? We weren't there to save time. We were there to spend time! And it was a great decision. The night market was bigger, the temples prettier and the place less crowded!

While most people chose to do a day trip to the islands by keeping Phuket or Krabi as the base, we spent a few nights each in Phuket, Phi Phi and Krabi, and only did day trips to islands where there's no settlement. Additionally, the cruise rides, public ferries and bike rides was what made it even more wonderful than just hopping onto a speedboat! Isn't it better to watch unhurried sunsets by the beach than visit the beach at noon for a few hours?

Our final destination was Bangkok, because why not! It's the capital city which is always buzzing and offers great options for trying street food and shopping! And that's exactly what we did in addition to sipping on cups of coffees every day. Visits to the local markets, ferry rides and old town walks were as wonderful as spending time at the night market at Khao San and walking the streets of China Town! 

One of the most beautiful places I've been to - Pileh Bay in Koh Phi Phi

Internal travel:

Many places in Thailand are accessible by road, air, train and sea! Public transport in smaller cities is very efficient too! But we had already booked two internal flights, which we couldn't cancel. It was only later that we realised that the road would be a way cheaper option.

However, we took public ferries and cruisers from one beach town/island to the other, and it was cost efficient, quicker than road and fun throughout! Who doesn't want to laze on a sundeck with beer and chill with other travellers on a two hour cruise? 

The old city in Chiang Mai to a great extent was walkable since we stayed pretty close. We had to walk past the river to the night market also! We only had to hire a cab to go to the waterfalls which was pretty far, but if you are confident of riding/driving, you could rent a bike or car. Cycling around the old town is an option too! There are also shared red buses/vans that ply on regular routes. 

In Chiang Rai, we met a very sweet tuk-tuk guy who took us around, picked us up and dropped us (from bus station, airport, to hotel, to the night market and to the temples, on all three days). But renting a vehicle of your own is an option too!

While in Phuket, we rented a scooter, which costed us 200 baht + fuel (50 baht). You don't need an international license. The hotel gives you an identoification sign that you need to carry around, in case you are stopped by the cops. But where I was (around Karon, Kata and Patong beach, there weren't any).

On the cruiser while travelling from Phi Phi islands to Krabi

Phi Phi and Krabi, for us, was entirely walkable, considering both our hotels (PP Charlie Beach Resort and Railay Princess Beach Resort were right by the beach/ ferry pier. We could just walk to the beach, the restaurants, walking street and pier, and take a ferry in case we had to cross over to another place. 

Transport in Bangkok was quite tricky though! The airport taxi was economical, but the cab prices were pretty steep while getting around within the city. It was quite tough for us to bargain with tuk-tuks and cabbies, but we managed. The city is connected with great public transport, in the form of ferries, skyline and buses. The ferries are super cheap and so much fun to go around in!

Hotels we stayed at:

Gategaa Village, Chiang Mai

Though the initial plan was to stay at hostels in a lot of places, we eventually ended up booking boutique hotels and resorts at most places, except Bangkok. We found a sweet deal at Gategaa Village in Chiang Mai, which was conveniently located from the night market (a 1km, 15 minute walk) and most attractions in the old town. Additionally, it also facilitated the quiet strolls by the riverside and the quick visits to the happening part of town. The staff and managers were extremely kind and warm, and helped us with our cab bookings, bus (to Chiang Rai) bookings and itinerary without charging is a penny! Everyone, including baby Nana being her cute self, added to the wonderful vibe of the place. We loved the complimentary breakfasts here (a limited menu of a Thai special, eggs to order, yogurt, muesli and fruits/juices). I loved it! This is a place I'd definitely recommend.

Wonderful rooftop pool with jacuzzi at Gategaa Village in Chiang Mai

Saikaew Resort, Chiang Rai 

In Chiang Rai, we stayed at a cozy boutique guest house, Saikaew Resort, located right by a pond. The view was brilliant and the wooden cottage located right amid nature was just what you need to unwind and rejuvenate. It wasn't very far from the airport, bus station and city centre as well, so it worked well for us. The owner (who deserves a special mention here) was the sweetest lady we met. She went out of her way to ensure a comfortable stay for us - helped us with a lot of things, drove us to the nearby supermarket to fetch dinner in her personal car, spoke to our hotel for our next destination in local language and helped us sort airport pickup, offered to post my postcards and let me play with her cats (yes she had many many cats and dogs, and rabbits and birds)! This is another place I'd recommend.

My favourite spot at Saikaew Resort in Chiang Mai post sunset

Kata Tranquil Villas, Phuket 

At our next stop - Phuket - we weren't very happy with the service of the property. We stayed at a boutique hotel called Kata Tranquil Villas. The hotel in itself was lovely - neat and spacious rooms, a pretty pool and a little dog on the property. The upside was, it was just two kilometres away from the tranquil Kata and Karon beaches and a little distance away from the buzzing Patong beach and Bangla road. This ensured that we could go to the nicer beaches within moments, and could also ride to the happening places in twenty minutes (we rented a bike from the hotel for 200 THB + 50 THB for fuel). But the staff were extremely rude, tried to rip us off not tried, succeeded actually) and ruined our Phuket experience for us! 

Our spacious room at Kata Tranquil Villa in Phuket

PP Charlie Beach Resort, Phi Phi 

At our next stop, Phi Phi, we had booked one of the most convenient places. PP Charlie Beach Resort was located right on the beach, and a five minute walk away from the ferry pier (from where you enter/exit the island and take the ferry for your island hopping tour). They were the largest resort we stayed at, had the largest breakfast spread and warm vibes. We watched the sun go down by the infinity pool(s) and could just walk (a two minute walk) to the walking street/night bazaar where we could grab dinner and sip on some drinks. Though the property was wonderful, I didn't quite like the room! above all, they had the most number of very friendly cats as compared to any other hotel (win!). 

The splendid infinity pool by the beach at PP Charlie Beach Resort on Phi Phi Islands

Railay Princess Beach Resort and Spa, Krabi 

The last beach resort we stayed at was Railay Princess Beach Resort and Spa in Krabi, which had the most spacious room (our of the six places we stayed at), had two pools with a jacuzzi (unlike any other place we stayed at during this trip), was ten steps away from the ferry pier, was right by the beach and had amazing views of the limestones and the beach. Their (complimentary) breakfast spread was wonderful, the staff were super warm, kind and friendly (they helped us with a lot of things), room service was quick and efficient and food was economically priced at three of their inhouse restaurants. They were so close to the walking street as well! We loved both the pools, and our luxurious room (which even had a bathtub in the spacious bathroom and a large balcony). 

The most spacious room at Railay Princess Beach Resort in Krabi

Niras Bankoc Cultural Hostel, Bangkok

During the last leg of our journey, we stayed at a hostel - Niras Bankoc Cultural Hostel in Bangkok. It was around half an hour from both the airports in Bangkok - Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Mueang International Airport and is connected with cabs. The hostel in itself was beautiful - vintage and warm. The rooms were neat, the female dorm we shared was air-conditioned, had a shared bathroom and had the nicest people. The staff were attentive and super sweet. They helped us figure cheaper options to get around the city, help us plan itineraries and assisted in booking cabs! The nicest part was - they had a lovely coffee shop, so every time we entered the hostel, we were welcomed by a strong aroma of coffee. Additionally, we could spend hours there drinking coffee and just chilling, while it rained outside. 

Niras Bangkoc Cultural Hostel in Bangkok

Saturday, August 18, 2018

An exquisite Italian dining experience at Morgan's Place in Sangolda

In the quaint town of Sangolda, in North Goa, right across the bustling Chogm Road, lies a little space tucked away in a palatial Portuguese bungalow. The quirky design and vibrant colours is sure to attract passer-by’s, if not, there’s an arty board that will sure lure you to visit if you’re that side! It’s just been eight years since its inceptions, but this space is sure become the talk of the town. It was my first visit there, but I had already seen too many photos online and heard people talk so much about the place to know what to expect. And it sure pleased!

The Goa outlet is the third outlet of Morgan’s Place. Though the Dharamkot outlet in Mclodganj is still the popular one, they have tried to maintain uniformity. The cozy interiors, vivacious theme and colourful furniture is sure to appeal. The colonial restored bungalow that houses Morgan’s Place has retained some of its old-school charm, while the quirky interiors add character to the space. While some parts of the heritage house is retained, a lot of elements are added to resemble their other properties.

You enter a plush verandah on arrival, which leads into the hallway and the rooms within – all of which are decorated in the ‘Alice In Wonderland’ theme. The walls boast of large paintings – each one reciting a fairytale. The chandeliers, wooden furniture, mini libraries and art on the wall gives the space an alluring effect. As you walk inside, passing by glass doors and mirrored walls, you reach the ‘red room’, which was sure my favourite. I did park myself on a cushioned armchair by the windowside, on a heart-shaped table with a book shelf right in front of me! Yes! That pretty… and dreamy.

If I wasn’t in fairyland already, the menu sure took me there! It comprised of a selection of interesting Italian delicacies – home-made pastas, wood-fired pizzas, salads, paninis and soups! We started with a few assorted crostinis as we sipped on our refreshing mocktails. The crostini ham, bacon, funghi (mushroom) and garlic – were absolutely delicious and definitely recommended for light munchies before you dive into some more goodness!

Their outdoor space is extremely pretty as well! The focus is on details, and it’s noticed in every little element – may it be the colour choice or the tissue box or the cutlery. Then there’s the friendly giant of a pupper – Chico always making his presence felt and wanting to be played with and petted! He definitely steals the show for doggo-lovers! Of course, not for me! I was petrified at first, but he was pretty darn friendly!

Next up was the gnocchi primavera – the most comforting vegetarian meal I’ve had. For someone who doesn’t like vegetarian food, the homemade gnocchi with mushroom, spinach and blue cheese in a creamy white sauce was delightful! I relished every bit of it! I’m told their Bolognese, ravioli, lasagne and risotto is worth a shot too!

Their signature pizza was next on the list! We got a half-and-half pizze – with one half made of BBQ chicken and the other with pepperoni. The thin crust classic pepperoni was one of the best I’ve had so far! The smoky flavour added to the entire experience!

Their variety of desserts are interesting too! I had to go in for the ‘Hello to the Queen’, because everyone is raving about it, and I wanted to check if it lives up to the hype! A soft, warm fried banana base, layered with cinnamon cookie crumble, topped with mango (replaced with strawberry during season) and vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup to make the perfect dessert oozing a burst of flavours and textures in every bite. The gooey chocolate mousse was of the right consistency and sweetness, and was to-die-for! A perfect end to the meal!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A weekend trip to Coorg | Madikeri, Somwarpet, Kushalnagar, Bylakuppe, Tibetan colony and Golden Temple | Coorg travelogue

The Kodagu district in Karnataka, colloquially known as Coorg, has been on my bucketlist ever since I moved to Mangalore in 2014. Every time, for the following two years, I tried to plan a trip to the beautiful land of Coorg, it didn't work out. I planned another one during my convocation in 2017, didn't work out either! So well, now, when I had almost made my mind to go to Panchagani, I decided to call it off and finish this unfinished business from years ago! Hello Coorg!

How did I get there? Considering Coorg falls in the southernmost tip in Karnataka, in the thick forests of the Western Ghats, and driving or riding down is a convenient option, I took public transport. Yes, you can have a good laugh, but I'm someone who wouldn't demotivate myself from going to a place because I couldn't really drive or ride a motorcycle there from Goa. So I hopped on to a train from Goa to Mangalore, and then took a public bus from Mangalore KSRTC bus stand to Kushalnagar, where we had rented a bike to go around Coorg.

Thus began my three days in Coorg! We reached around lunch time and finding a nice place for lunch was quite a task. After a good hunt for local food, we were led to Marish Naty's Style by the locals. The entire menu was in the local language (though written in English) and I pretty much didn't understand much. But we asked for some local specialities (to the waiter who didn't know English or Hindi) and he got us a local style chicken thali. We also tried other regional and rural Karnataka delicacies like Kadubu chicken curry, ragi mudde (ragi ball) and akki roti (rice roti).

We then rode to our hostel around 25 kms away from Kushalnagar. That's when the sense of distance started soaking in! Every place was so far, you were spending over an hour in pure riding. Places were located some 30-40kms away from each other, or even further, and you were riding through hilly terrains. We were staying in a beautiful homestay (Firefly Homestay) converted into a hostel by Zostel - one of my favorite chain of hostels in India. And honestly, it was more because of Zostels tempting social media posts that I eventually landed in Coorg.

The property located in Siddapura - amid lush green forests and coffee plantations - was as beautiful as it could get! The lovely white house, with it's qurky walls, an arty attic, amazing common area and outdoor space, and above all, beautiful view, was breathtaking. Though quite a distance away from both - Madikeri and Kushalnagar, the ride is scenic, with coffee plantations, forests, fields, riverulets and waterfalls lining the road. They have an open kitchen and also an outdoor space where they serve food which includes basic Indian meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Our first day was spent exploring bits of Madikeri and also trying to get a hang of the routes and roads. It was a rainy day and we didn't do much, except wandering around on our rented scooter. We went towards Abbey Falls, which is the most conveniently located falls in Madikeri, just about 8kms away. It is quite touristy, but the fact that they aren't allowed to venture close to the falls makes sure you can see the falls in all it's glory. It eventually meets river Cauvery or Kaveri, which is a major river in the area. Since it was peak monsoons, the falls were cascading in all it's glory and looked beautiful! We also went to a view point - Raja's Seat, which was pretty foggy and we couldn't see much. But riding around Madikeri in the rains, we spotted some beautiful view of the valley and mistry peaks.

Hunting for some good food again led us to East End Hotel, one of the more popular restaurants in Madikeri. The ambiance at the restaurant was really great and it was one of those upmarket restaurants in the place. Though they served local cuisine, we were in for a dissappointment on realising they don't serve pork. We had already had our share of chicken for the day. But we settled in for Coorgi style chicken fry - delicious and extremely spicy, and Coorgi kheema ball curry (mutton meatball curry) with rice. The food was absolutely delicious, and I know why this place is hyped so much. The ride back was joyful, though it was quite cold in Madikeri. As we rode towards Siddapur, it started getting pleasant. The night was spent at the attic with fellow travellers in the hostel playing boardgames and sharing travel stories.

Day 2 started on an absolutely happy note because it was dedicated to visiting Kushalnagar, which has been on my bucketlist ever since I visited the Tibetan colony in Mundgod. I really loved the experience and when someone suggested I must visit the Tibetan colony in Bylakuppe in Kushalnagar, I instantly added it to my bucket list. It was only years later that I was actually going there! The rain gods were merciful and it was a bright day when the clouds dispersed. The bright day allowed for taking some photographs in the picturesque backdrops in forests and coffee estates, that lined the smooth yet zig-zag country roads.

We pulled over at a hanging bridge we spotted in Somwarpet, on our way to Kushalnagar and saw river Cauvery flowing in all it's glory. When we reached Kushalnagar another time (we were there the previous day too), the roads seemed familiar and we didn't have to use Google maps. With just a few steps to ask for directions, and trusting our instincts at most parts, we found ourselves in front of the magnificent gate of the Namdroling monastery.

I soaked it in for a moment and headed for an early lunch, knowing I wouldn't step out any time soon, and it indeed was a good choice. More about it later. So, we walked a little distance and found ourselves surrounded by a few restaurants serving Tibetan food. We entered the one that seemed frequented by monks. And it was a great choice. They served varied Tibetan delicacies, most of which I hadn't even heard before. So after constantly seeking help from the waiter and trying to read up stuff online, we placed our order.

We skipped eating steamed momo's, considering that's the only thing we are used to and we wanted to save space in our tummies for food we hadn't ever eaten. We relished a great meal of Mok Thuk (a very comforting Momo soup), Then Thuk dry (hand pulled noodles with veggies and meat served without the broth) and Shaap-tah (stir fried meat - more resembling beef chilli). We shopped for a few Tibetan artefacts and souvenirs and entered the Namdroling Monastery.

The Namdroling Monastey, popularly known as the Golden Temple, is a home to over 5000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. The Tibetans in exile live and study here and there are institutes, colleges and hospitals in the settlement. There are tall statues of Buddha, sacred scriptures and horns. The marble floor is always covered in carpet and anybody is allowed to sit and meditate. The intricate designs on the interiors and the paintings depicting Buddha's life are something to look forward to. The entire complex is massive and tourists are allowed to visit. Some other structures in the vicinity does not allow tourists to visit. But the Golden Temple in itself is pretty massive and gives you an insight into the Tibetan way of life. You see cute monks going around in their robes. Just sitting there and watching them going about their daily chores is an experience in itself.

We spent a while chilling at Zostel, before heading out to Madikeri for the evening. We stopped by beautiful waterfalls and got some photos clicked before heading to the Madikeri Fort, which is located in the heart of Madikeri town.

The Madikeri Fort houses the palace, temple, church, museum and police station. The entire structure is a beautiful historic monument preserving the remnant of the bygone era and shows hints of the dominance of several rulers of the past. For example, there's the Angelican church that shows the dominance of the Britishers in Coorg. The church, constructed in gothic style, with beautiful stained windows still stands tall and houses a museum. The fort also offers a spectacular view of the surrounding areas covered in mist. I love heritage structures and this one was a wonderful experience. There's no entry fee and the atmosphere inside is really great!

Next, we headed to another architectural wonder - the popular Shri Omkareshwara Temple, an ancient shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. It reflects a mix of gothic and muslim construction styles. Some parts of it resembles a Muslim dargah. It comrpises of a central dome with four minarets at four corners and a pond in the centre. The temple, of course, has religious significance and devotees do visit. But even if you aren't a Hindu and just want to check out the archerecture, it's a wonderful sight.

We rode around the market in Madikeri and also some hills, taking in the views. We stopped by at a wine shop selling local wine and were absolutely surprised by the number of local wines available in Madikeri. It includes Hibiscus, Chilli, Grape, Passion Fruit, Ginger and Beatleleaf Wine. The man was kind enough to give us a tasting and a brief description about each wine and the making of it! At the end of it, we picked up a few bottles to take home, with an intention of making out friends drink the pungent chilli wine. I also picked up a grape wine which tasted so good! We also picked up some local 'Coorgi kaapi' (coffee) and wild honey!

We were just in time for dinner when it started raining and we headed to Coorg Cuisine, a restaurant serving local food - with special emphasis on Coorgi pork. We tried some more Coorgi food, like the Pandi Curry (Coorgi pork curry), Pandi Beev Barthad (pork chops) and Boltha Kool (rice noodles). It was surprising how good everything taste and how inexpensive food was in Coorg. We were stuffed beyond proportion because the quantity of each meal is so large! The ride back was joyful, going through winding roads and misty hills. The evening was spent by the bonfire, sipping on coffee and exchanging travel stories.

Our last day in Madikeri was spent sipping on coffee, wrapping up some work and catching up with hostel buddies. I tried the food at Zostel during breakfast and they make quite some basic egg and bread stuff! I also happened to check their lunch and dinner menu and realised they have basic North-Indian style daily set menu, which changes every day of the week. I spent some time reading and just soaking in the vibe of the property!

We headed out for lunch towards Kushalnagar and found ourselves outside the Golden Temple yet again. We had lunch at Hot Momo's Tashi Delek Restaurant outside the monastery and tried some more Tibetan food. The chicken noodle soup was very comforting, while the chicken fried momos and chicken shabalek was simply delicious. And with that, we bid Coorg a good bye! We returned our rented bike and hoped on to a Volvo bus to Mangalore, from where we were heading home to Goa! What an end to a wonderful trip!

Do let me know what you think in the comments below.