Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Da Nang and Hoi An - Vietnam

The Golden Bridge stands 1400 m above sea level at Baa Na hills

 Important things to do before you go to Vietnam

  • Find rules about vaccination, RT PCR and make sure that these are complied with. In any case one should always carry vaccination certificate and no harm in getting RT PCR test done. 
  • Ask your travel agent to fill up the Air Suvidha declaration and ‘check you  in’  a day before you are coming back. Or one can do that oneself on phone/laptop. Just keep pdf copies of vaccination certificate on your device. 
  • Carry a spare phone and buy a sim card on arrival ait airport with a few phone calls and 3-5 GB data. I bought a 3 GB Sim and it cost around Rs 650. 
  • Best app for taxi is GRAB in Vietnam. Download it with new Sim card and ideally link it to a credit card. I had a forex card so I linked it to that. Grab was a boon - very nice cars and would arrive in no time at all. Made life very easy. But you can pay by cash as well. 
  • Other radio taxis like Mailinh or Vinasun are also good though more expensive than grab. It was easy getting taxi’s from everywhere. 
  • Vietnamese Dong can make you nervous as exchange rate is 1 USD = VD 24000. My formula for converting Dong to INR was - delete last 2 zeroes and divide rest by 3. So 10,00,000 or 1 million Dong would become 10000/3 = 3333 INR
  • It would help if you make a day-wise rough itinerary. You don’t have to follow that but it will help you get organised and making changes becomes easy. 
  • Vietnamese eat very low salt and chili diet. Salt you can always get but carry chili flakes with you to make food more interesting or show them picture of chili in soya sauce to get it. 
  • Language is a problem so best would be to use some kind of translator on mobile. Once you have data on phone- it becomes easy. 
  • It takes just about 4-5 days for E Visas to come. Better to apply for e visas rather than visa on arrival. 
  • The Vietnam Airways counter at Delhi was managed by Air India personnel. Most inefficient staff there could be. Their check in process was extremely slow and painful. They confirmed to me that luggage was booked through to Da Nang. I did not trust them and checked conveyer belt at Hanoi (The transit airport). Sure enough - our luggage had been booked only till Hanoi and it was on the belt.  

An introduction

Vietnam is a top travel destination in Southeast Asia. The country receives an average of 6 million tourists each year - visiting the country for its affordable tourist destinations, archaeological sites, historic cities, beautiful beaches, and amazing culture.
Vietnam is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the East Vietnam Sea – to the east.

While Hanoi is towards the North and Ho Chi Minh city is towards the South - Da Nang is somewhere in the middle. It is Da Nang which was our destination for this holiday.

There is not yet a direct flight between Delhi and Da Nang. It is expected to start soon. We had done Hanoi, Ha Long bay cruise, HCM (Ho Chi Minh) city along with Cu Chi caves & Mekong Delta and beach resort of Nha Trang a few years ago. At that time we skipped Da Nang as the reviews said that you need 4-5 days in Da Nang and there wasn’t enough time. 

Links to my previous visit to Vietnam :

Arriving at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi

Our flight arrived in Hanoi at around 10.30 PM and we had booked a small hotel in the vicinity called Paragon Noi Bai hotel & Pool. As mentioned above, we were lucky that we checked the conveyor belt and found our luggage as we had been told that we should collect it at our final destination- Da Nang. The hotel car picked us up and kept the kitchen open for us to have something to eat before crashing out. Our flight was next morning so it was a matter of spending the night only. Hotel was a basic place in a lane quite near the airport, but rooms were clean and Air Conditioned. We had a windowless room but we didn't think about it as it was a matter of spending a few hours only. An Indian honeymooning couple who had arrived by the same flight as us were most disappointed that they were given hotel of this quality in a 'package' that they had booked from India. The hotel car dropped us to airport in the morning to catch our flight. I don’t know if the honeymooning couple continued staying here or checked out the next morning. 

Sheraton Grand Da Nang

From the reception area of the hotel the view was beautiful. We could see a very long swimming pool joining the infinity pool and then the sea almost merging in it. This is perhaps the largest swimming pool I have seen in any hotel. Even the luxury hotels in tourist destinations like Goa, Jaipur etc make very small pools which get over filled by guests making everyone uncomfortable. They should look to make larger pools as most people on a holiday like to swim if weather is conducive. There were mountains on the one side of the sea.

The swimming pool was never ending and the infinity pool almost merged into the sea

 It was cloudy and it all looked divine. We were ready for our 4 day holiday. 

It wasn’t long before I was in the pool. For me doing laps in a pool is a way of relaxing and stretching. It really refreshed me after all those flights. 

Sheraton Grand was a huge hotel with nice rooms and villas. I liked the view from my room as it faced the Bay area. The hotel had 3 great golf courses in the vicinity and I was told that 'Dragon golf' will book a game for you and even hire out golf clubs. I decided to keep golf at abeyance till I made a trip with my golfing friends. Hope that happens soon.

Hoi An - The lantern city

The Bon River is full of boats with Lanterns. It is a spectacular sight. 

Devicka and I are not the ones to waste time. We were on way Hoi An after relaxing for an hour. Hoi An is a small town next to Da Nang known for its old town and the lanterns. Old town has small shops selling a lot of traditional stuff but the specialization is in garments and shoes. They have excellent variety of fabrics and can stitch anything for you in a few hours. They even make shoes of your size once you like the design in 2 hours ! If the order is good they will deliver it to your hotel. Bargaining is a way of life here. They also have a night market. We roamed around for a couple of hours and saw the streets come alive as the sun set with beautifully lit lanterns. Many shops were selling the lanterns as well. 

The Lantern shops

We walked till the famous covered Japanese bridge and then turned to where the real action was. 

At the Japanese Covered bridge, Hoi An

The river front was bustling with activity. The boats in the river Bon were covered with lanterns and there were hundreds of them crisscrossing each other. It was a spectacle worth watching. We preferred to watch the boats and the activity rather than go boating ourselves.  There were bars and restaurants on the other side of river and we needed to rest our feet and sit down so we sat in the Tiger bar which advised people not to be pussies but be a Tiger. Tiger of course happens to be a famous Beer brand. We had a few drinks with grilled pork as snack before walking and exploring the area for another half an hour or so. Entire area was lit up and the place had some real positive energy which reflected in the crowds. 

Dinner was at famous riverside Morning Glory Signature famous for sizzling pepper beef, snapper with mango , and fish in caramel sauce.  It was huge restaurant cum bar with outdoor, indoor and rooftop seating. As I could only eat one dish I chose the sizzling pepper beef and was happy at my choice. 

Baa Na Hills

The hands bridge known as the golden bridge has become the main image for Vietnam tourism. I found this ironic as for a country endowed with such natural beauty - a man made bridge has been projected as the most famous landmark as far as tourism is concerned. Actually this is not a bridge over some river or crevasse. It has been made on a mountain and for people to access it, they have to travel out of Da Nang,  buy tickets, go up on the longest ropeway in the world and then cross the famed bridge on their feet while admiring the beautiful view below . On holidays and weekends the crowds throng the place and it is difficult to even cross the bridge. Vietnam has a bustling internal tourism . International tourists are very few now due to restrictions imposed during Covid19 and visas not being issued.

Huge Buddha statue at Baa Na hills can be seen from miles

After breakfast we had planned to go to marble mountains but as weather prediction looked good and it was a weekday - we called for Grab cab for Baa Na hills. It takes a good 45 minute ride to reach the base of hills from where you can buy tickets. ( If going on a weekend or in Vietnamese holiday season- buy tickets online.) Our driver was good, he knew English and he asked us to call him when we were ready to go back. We used him a few times including our drop off to the airport early in morning.  

View from Cable Car as you go up the Baa Na Hills. 

Baa Na hills was good fun. The cable car was picture perfect. Near the base was a sprawling Baa Na hills golf course. Up there at the top they had made good gardens, a huge Buddha statue and eateries. Then you go further up on another cable car and you reach their Fantasy world with an amusement park, restaurants, shows etc. I had a major thrill coming down at full speed down the mountain on Alpine coaster. Lot of construction activities are going on in Baa Na hills. We will hear a lot more about it as new facilities come up. 

Having fun coming down the mountain at great speed on Alpine coaster

It was almost 5 in the evening when we reached back. People normally go in the morning and come back late at night. I guess soon they will expand the entertainment area and add hotels and convention centers. I was soon in the sea followed by the pool. In an hour I was all relaxed and ready for second innings of the day. 

My Khe Beach - The activity Centre of Da Nang

My Khe beach is broad & clean and the bars/restaurants are pretty good

My Khe beach is the main beach of the city. It is a lively beach area which has a road passing through which divides the beach from the high rise hotels. On the side of the beach are bars and restaurants and the beach itself has beach beds and games like volleyball. If you stay in one of the hotels you can choose a sea facing room and to visit the beach you just have to cross the road. Most of these hotels are good with sky bars and restaurants on top floor and swimming pools & spa. Advantage of staying here is that you can come down by elevator and you are in thick of action. Restaurants, Bars and Spas were all walking distances. 

There are many good hotels opposite My Khe beach and they are reasonable and good value for money

In Sheraton and other top hotels like Hyatt and Melia they have excellent facilities with low rise rooms, huge swimming pools and dining areas and they are on the beach but to go anywhere you had to get a cab. There was nothing interesting outside the hotel so one had to venture far to do anything. A hotel next to My Khe beach called the Premier Village looked good as you could walk to nearby places. 

View of the city from 21st floor of the Sky Bar

Evening on day 2 was spent at a beachside restaurant with the sound of waves and restaurant music and then we crossed the road to hotel Belle Mason which is famous for its Sky21 bar & restaurant. We strolled in that area observing the locals and watched how they selected the seafood from aquariums to be cooked - and then it was time to call it a day. 

The Marble mountains 

The Caves of Marble mountains have Buddhist shrines in them.

The first 2 days had been perfect as it had been cloudy and cool. We woke up on day 3 to a bright morning. Much too bright to our liking. The sun was sharp and from the room even the beach sand looked hot or so I imagined. We could see the Marble mountains from the hotel. Named after 5 elements - these 5 mountains are made up of marble and limestone. Immediately after breakfast we decided to go  to the Marble mountains. Thankfully they had an option of going up by elevator. Even then there were loads of steep uneven steps to go up and down to reach several caves and Buddhist statues. The atmosphere up there was very religious with chants of hymns reverberating everywhere on the mountain that we had climbed.  

These steps of Marble mountains are tough to climb. During rains they become slippery.

It was hot and we were exhausted as we walked in all directions exploring the caves and shrines and then all the way down till the bottom. We were tired but not defeated. I had a solution of  getting rid of this tiredness and immediately I called a Grab cab and we reached a very famous spa called the Herbal Spa. (; whatsapp (+84) 0901825789). They have 2 spas near each other and they were both occupied for next couple of hours. We walked again under the blazing sun till we found another spa which looked good. It turned out to be fabulous. A 90 minute Vietnamese traditional massage with hot stone therapy cost approximately Rs 1500 each and it was most satisfying. The girls used a lot of elbows and knees and it was most refreshing though a bit strong on the back at times. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the place though it was walking distance from a large restaurant called the Tokyo. Unfortunately Tokyo gave us terrible food and it was the beer that saved the meal. 

Once again it was time for afternoon siesta and to decide what to do in the evening after my customary swim. 

The Dragon Bridge on River Han

It was time to go to Han river and the famed Dragon Bridge in evening. The area around the Han river is called Hai Chau and could be termed as city centre of Da Nang with famous markets like Han market and Helio night market. We had gone there after sunset as didn’t want to go in heat so there was no point going towards Han market as it shuts early. Instead we roamed around the night market of Son Tra as we waited for the dragon to blow fire. On Saturdays and Sundays the area comes alive, the bridge is shut off and thousands gather all over the place to witness dragon blowing fire at 9 PM. I was more fascinated to see the number of the people than the show itself. I guess people need some entertainment. 

Next to the Dragon Bridge is the Son Tra night market

This area also has several good restaurants and Olivia’s Prime Steakhouse (; +84908163352) was on my list. The steaks and chops were superb and they had a great collection of wines. A place worth dining in if you like this kind of food. 

The final day of our holiday

The Hoi An Old Town

Devicka wanted to go to Hoi An again so we were back there but this time in morning hours. She wanted to buy a few things so we explored the old town at leisure and then as it got very hot - we went to ‘The Deckhouse’ which was a beach club at An Bang beach. 

The beach side of 'The Deckhouse.' 

This wasn’t far from Hoi An. There were several beach clubs in a row and it was a great place to relax near the sea with some great music playing. I would intermittently go for sea swims and then come back and savour sea food and cocktails. Here we saw several tourists from Western world. I will do more beach clubs the next time I go as it is the best way to spend afternoons. Many beach clubs become nightclubs at sunset and are open till 2 AM. 

Relaxing at the beach club called 'The Deckhouse.' 

We went for massage in the evening to My Khe beach area and walked at beachside till we came to ‘4U’ beach bar and steakhouse. A leisurely evening was spent there. We had an early morning flight the next day so didn’t stay here till very late. 

My Khe beach has some real good places to chill

It must be clear by now that for Devicka and me a holiday cannot be just checking into a luxury hotel and just stay put enjoying the hotel facilities. We were staying in a fantastic hotel but were out twice a day and other than breakfast and a few snacks we didn’t eat at the hotel at all. I did use the pool and the beach every single day and it was lovely getting up in the morning to get a lovely view of the sea from room. 

During the time we were in Da Nang I think we did justice to the place. 

The food we had during the trip

Well, we didn't have any Indian food while in Vietnam. We did see a couple of Indian restaurants but didn't venture near it. I was comfortable with all kind of food while Devicka is a bit conservative in her food habits so she stuck to things like fish n chips, lamb chops etc. Chicken dishes were very few and it was mainly seafood, pork and beef. 

There are many mid level restaurants like this which locals love.

Great choice of Seafood to select

My favourite dish - Pho - Noodle soup with beef

Prawns were a plenty

3 different type of Steaks

Burger at our hotel

Devicka lived on Lamb Chops

Scallops with onion and tomato

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

River Rafting in Ganges


Rishikesh at Night

It became sort of an addiction. This was around 25 years ago when I was introduced to 'Snow Leopards Camp' at Rishikesh. Rishikesh is a religious town at the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of river Ganga. The river comes down from the mountains, crosses Rishikesh, flows under the legendry Laxman jhoola and then reaches the holy city of  Haridwar. The climb of a few hundred km from Rishikesh can take you the famous Badrinath. 

Just above Rishikesh at a village called Shivpuri, the government had given a few companies to set up seasonal camps on the beach. These were adventure sports companies and specialised in river rafting, rock climbing and Kayaking. Snow Leopard was run by Ajeet Bajaj (popularly known as Baggage) though there were several other camps, I heard mostly about Snow Leopard and another one nearby run by a gentleman called Yusuf. 

The Snow Leopard Camp

Ideal weekend rafting trip consisted of leaving Delhi at 6 AM on a Friday and reaching the camp at Lunch time. The same afternoon you were initiated into river rafting with a detailed briefing, some practical training and a short rafting trip in some small rapids. Saturday morning after breakfast you were taken upstream on cars and did some really breathtaking stuff which included a grade 5 rapid called 'The Wall.' Wall was not for the faint hearted and many a times the raft would flip over though luckily it didn't happen with us. After afternoon rest you could Kayak, go swimming or just laze around. Each evening there was a bonfire where snacks were served and you had to carry your own booze. Food was fabulous and the cooks were great. Bonfire time was fun time with singing, dancing and and some talented guys from the camp played guitar and other instruments. Baggage himself was quite good at all this and was a perfect host. he had recently got married and on our next trip he gave us the news of his daughter being born. Then in 2018 I read that Ajeet and his daughter Deeya became the first father-daughter combo to climb Mt Everest together. Before that Ajeet had become first Indian to Ski to North Pole and complete the polar triology (skiing to North pole, South pole and Greenland Ice cap). As Deeya and my children were studying in same school in Gurgaon, I saw him often during school functions. 

The Snow Leopard Camp at Shivpuri around 20 years ago. 

The camps were not tiny. They had many tents and once we had a full Danish embassy crowd sharing the beach with us and at another time it was the crowd of a famous PR agency. Everything was kept very clean and they had started installing those modern toilets with incinerators. Safety while in raft was of paramount importance so they had trained professionals. Each time we met someone from abroad also who specialised in adventure sports and had come to experience rapids of Ganges. At one of the trips we met Strangway Orridge (Strang) who flirted shamelessly with my cousins and their friends. Well, they flirted with equal tenacity so me as a 'big brother' had no option but to keep out of it. Later I got to know that Strang was in DU hostel at same time as me and we had many common friends. We still meet occasionally whenever there is a get together of common friends. 

The last day(Sunday) we started from the camp on a raft and did many rapids like 'tee off', 'golf course', 'club house' , 'return to the sender' and 'roller coaster.' Not only did you get drenched during these rafting trips but many of us were allowed to jump in at certain places and body surf in the river along with the raft. It was exhilarating and exciting. You could see tall mountains and greenery on all sides as you floated on your back in cold water. Talking of cold water, I got a bit excited seeing two lovely looking Danish ladies in their Bikinis diving into the river at 7 AM. Not to be left behind - I tried emulating them not realising that the water consisted of melted snow and the Danes were accustomed to such cold. It took me an hour in front of coal fire and several cups of tea to thaw after that ! 

It used to be fun lying on cool sand at night along with friends or cousins and watching the sky full of stars. Once we were taken to a haunted house nearby and it was fun to watch girls scream and shout as the staff of the camp made haunted house come alive. 

For some reason the rafting trips stopped. I really don't know the reason. We must have gone last 20-22 years back. All this changed a few days back. 

Rishikesh 2022

It was a holi weekend and I thought of going out of NCR. Talked to a few friends about a visit to Rishikesh and they seemed excited. I had booked a couple of apartments at 'Aloha Apartments' on instinct a month or so back so we needed one more apartment and luckily we got one. I called them up before our visit and took their recommendation for a river rafting operator. So river rafting was also fixed before we got there. Aloha hotel is bang in the middle of Rishikesh on the banks of Ganga and attached to it are apartments which are rented out. The hotel is strategically located as all rafting ends at the beach next to the hotel and even though it is bang in the muddle of the town, it is a quiet place as a lane takes it away from the crowds of Rishikesh. 

The highway upto Meerut was a dream and crossing Delhi was also very smooth early in the morning due to the fact that it was Holi. What we didn't realise that all restaurants and dhabas would also be shut throughout the way. But we were carrying enough sandwiches & food  and did manage to find a place for some paranthas and tea. It was the last 4 km's to the hotel that were a nightmare and took more than 2 hours. 

The cops had shut the route from the side of Laxman Jhoola probably due to festival so only one road was available and that was fully clogged. Indiscipline of several drivers ensured that we remained stuck for couple of hours. 

I remembered the time when we could not leave Rishikesh as agitation for creation of state of 'Uttranchal/Uttarakhand' was in full flow and on one particular day of the month the agitators used to block traffic as it was a monthly anniversary of the day when police had brutally assaulted the agitators. Sensing trouble Ajeet stopped us from going back to Delhi and looked after us that day and allowed us to leave only at 2 AM when the roads looked trouble free. The agitation finally paid off as Uttarkhand comprising of hilly areas of UP became 27th state of India in the year 2000. 

There was not much to do as we reached the hotel. It was time for some late lunch and a nap before we went to the lawns to witness the 'Ganga Aarti' conducted in hotel's premises. 

View from Aloha

The view was gorgeous as we could see the Ganga flowing downstream and the last of rafts ending their journey at the beach nearby. The lofty mountains enveloped us from all sides and it was a good change from the flat topography of Delhi. While the afternoon had been hot even in March, the weather changed dramatically after sunset and the cool breeze floated around. The evening Aarti in the backdrop of Laxman Jhoola was soothing and added spirituality to the trip as most people from our group attended along with several hotel guests. It also added colour to the dusk. 

From the hotel itself we could see unrelenting traffic on the winding roads of the mountains. The long queues remained long till late at night. We were told that each weekend it was like this and this weekend it was even more due to long Holi weekend. This is happening at all hills now due to narrow roads and ever increasing vehicles. Local tourism has also seen a steep climb last decade or so. We got the message to stay where we were and have dinner at either our own hotel or somewhere around. 

River Rafting in the Ganga rapids

Our river rafting group with our instructor and guide Anil

Devicka and Renu chickened out ! So it was 7 of us who finally ventured along with our guide/instructor Anil. We drove in a vehicle along with our raft upstream towards Shivpuri village. Shivpuri is where 'Snow leopard camp' used to be situated. NGT has removed all camps from the beach and this has deprived the rafters of the great experience of living in the tents on the beach and rafting twice a day and doing all sorts of things like Kayaking, jungle hikes, bonfires etc. 

Not only the camps were great fun and living on water a great experience- they were manned by some good caretakers and chefs. The guides/instructors were experts and sometimes many would come from abroad and learn about Ganga rapids while giving us a good time by maneuvering the rafts expertly through rapids. It was fascinating to see the experts coming expertly on Kayaks upstream through rapids. The first thing that I did at that time after going back to Delhi after our first trip was to watch 'River wild' starring Meryl Streep as it was all about rafting. 

Amongst the rafters in our group I was perhaps the most experienced having done this 8 times over 3 trips. Our instructor Anil was good. The first rapid is a gentle rapid called the 'Shivpuri rapid.' It basically acclimatizes you to the water and raft before the more serious rapids come along. So we go over this rapid and I tell everyone not to worry. And then guess what happens ? The most experienced rafter out of the lot gets hit by a wave and he goes toppling into 'Ganga Ma !' 

(I tried uploading that video here which shows how I went toppling into the river and how I was brought back on the raft. Special mention due for Nandita Kochhar who held me tight by the life jacket so that I stayed near the raft and did not drift off ! ) Unfortunately am unable to upload due to some technical funda.) 

Rest of the rapids were exciting and exhilarating. 'Return to the sender ' and ' The Golf Course' being most challenging and most fun. We were all drenched but that didn't matter as at some point we did jump into the freezing water and surfed along the raft. Sanya (my daughter) felt that it was the most exciting thing she had ever done. Each one of us loved being on the raft and in the water. And when Renu and Devicka saw the videos - they felt relieved that they had chickened out. 

I think we will have to this again sooner this time as at my age I don't think waiting 20 years would be wise !

Sanya and me getting ready to raft

Our rafting Group - Madhave, Rohin, Bobby, Sunil, Isha and Nandita. Sanya the photographer is missing

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Drive to Orchha, Khajurao and Panna

The Temples of Khajurao at night

The Journey Begins with Agra

For some reason the impression in mind was that Madhya Pradesh is quite far from Gurgaon. But when I checked , Gwalior was just 310 km's from home. So if one starts early in morning and crosses Delhi before rush traffic starts one can get to Gwalior in less than 6 hours. So ideally Gwalior should have been the first stop but we couldn't leave early morning on 24th December as Devicka and I both had work till 2 PM so we left home at 3 PM. Instead of Gwalior we decided on Agra as our night stop and took the Yamuna Expressway. Reaching Noida took a long time even in afternoon but once you are on Expressway - it is nice and smooth. So we started from Haryana and then went through UP, Rajasthan and UP again till we reached Madhya Pradesh. 

Marriott Courtyard is a hotel I am familiar with in Agra as early in the year we had a school batch reunion there. My friend Trevor had got us a great deal with the hotel and we had decided to stay here both ways. Its a nice and comfortable hotel and we were there just for the night as we checked out at 7.30 AM the next morning, had a quick breakfast and strong coffee and we were on our way to the temple city of Orchha, bypassing Gwalior and Jhansi. It's kind of funny when you stay in Agra and don't do any sightseeing. The city is full of historical treasures and no matter how many times you visit this city, you will always find some historical monument or garden which will surprise you. 

Temple town of Orchha

We had studied Orchha in history but recently a friend had recommended the town which used to be the capital city of Bundela Rulers in 15th century. He had described it as a nice and calm town on the banks of Betwa river known for its fort and exquisite temples. The town is also famous for its 'chattris' or 'Cenotaphs' which actually are the memorials for departed Bundela Kings. 

The Chattris (Cenotaphs) are spread over a large area with nice gardens on the banks of River Betwa.

We were in Orchha in less than 5 hours and realised that what I had booked was tented accommodation next to the Chattris very near the river. Devicka wasn't too pleased to spend a night in tented accommodation on a winter night but she didn't have a choice as the other hotels we had tried to book had all been sold out. So it was time to take a round of the town and visit whatever it had to offer. 

Everything appeared to be in vicinity of our 'Orchha resort.' We didn't even need to take out our car from hotel parking. Chaturbhuj temple stands out as it stands so elegantly and tall and you notice it as you walk down a few hundred meters. It is a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is known for one of the tallest Vimana amongst the hindu temples. You have to climb several uncomfortable steps to reach the temple but it has some nice architecture and the views are pretty good. 

The Chaturbhuj Temple at Orchha

Next to Chaturbhuj temple is the Raja Ram temple which has a long story dedicated to it. But important thing is that this is the only temple in the country where lord Ram is worshipped as a King. As we entered the temple we were asked to go out and come in the evening as it was the resting time for the King. 

Our tented accomodation at Orchha Resort was just under the famous Chattris. 

Before visiting Orchha I had no clue about what kind of town it was. I had expected a more spread out city than what it actually turned out to be. The Chattris and the Chandrabhuj temple were really very nice and the gardens in which Chattris were located were spread out and it was nice and peaceful sitting on a bench surrounded by the history. Betwa river flowed next to it. We did enjoy sitting there under the winter sun and a photo shoot of a newly married couple with all the poses and drama kept us amused. 

The Orchha Fort. It has a palace built specially for Mughal Emperor Jehangir

Last year during the Rajasthan road trip we had seen enough forts but this was an opportunity to see a fort built by Bundela kings. It was quite different from the Rajasthani forts and a full wing had been made for the Mughal emperor Jehangir as Bundelas always tried to remain in good books of Mughals. It's another matter that Jehangir spent just one night in the huge palace and it remained locked up for all the other time. We had a terrible guide so not much knowledge was gained from him but there was a sound and light show in the evening which lasted an hour. That told a lot of stories about the Bundela Kings and was quite useful for our knowledge. Besides that the fort and buildings looked quite nice all lit up during the show. 

While we were here as a tourist who had come for buildings, architecture and history - majority visit the town as pilgrims. So the quality of the crowd is what you typically find in temple towns and most of them had come in big groups in chartered buses. 

We were woken up early by loudspeakers at 6.30 AM warning people not to swim  in Betwa river and stay only on the edge of river and not go deep. These must be real enthusiastic people who were swimming in cold water when temp was 6 deg C. Now that we had got up early, we dressed up and left for Panna immediately after breakfast. 

Panna Tiger Reserve

Safari Time

It was around a 3 hour drive to Ken River Lodge from Orchha. Panna town is still 40 minutes drive from here but we had come for the wildlife sanctuary and not the town. Madla Gate is the best place for safari and our bookings for afternoon safari was from here. Madla is right in the beginning of the reserve and it was just 10 minutes drive from our hotel. As number of jeeps allowed to enter are restricted, one has to book safari much in advance from MP forest website and then come to the office of Madla gate to pay for a jeep and guide. Hinauta is another gate for Safaris and that is 15 km's away and not too popular. 

Ken river lodge was a nice resort with the river Ken flowing under the resort. We had a nice view of the river from our cottage room and from the restaurant Deck. After checking in we spent some time on the banks of river and it was real nice and calm. The river Ken flows through the Panna reserve and has a lot of crocodiles. All meals had been included in our package and they were happy to serve coffee or sandwiches at any time that we asked without charging extra. It was nice having a hot cup of tea and pakoras after we came back from our Safari as the evening had become chilly. It was then followed by a documentary about some past Tigers of Panna. Another good thing about the hotel was that the food was very similar to home food with no extra masalas or oil. We enjoyed the time we spent here. 

Ken River flows through the entire forest

Panna is popular but Bandhavgarh is much more popular. Bandhavgarh is another 4 hours drive from Panna and its difficult to get safari bookings at the last minute. Tiger and Leopard sightings are much more common in Bandhavgarh. So after 2 hours of roaming around in the jungle we thought that we should have gone to Bandhavgarh. It had been many many years ago that we had actually seen a Tiger in natural habitat and since then many visits to Corbett or Ranthambore had been just blanks. It is then that the elusive 'Kanha' suddenly got up from his camouflaged position in a muddy pond and started walking majestically. Kanha had some problem in his eyes so was nicknamed Kana (One with a single eye vision) by the guides and forest staff. But the director of forest advised them not to use such derogatory term for this majestic animal and renamed him Kanha - a short form for Kanhaiya. 

Kanha on prowl

When King of the Jungle walks - the world follows. News spreads fast and all the jeeps came rushing to the spot. It became one big carnival with happiness all around as sighting had been achieved. Soon the tiger disappeared in bushes and people wanted to get out of jungleas they had seen what they had come for.  No one had any interest left in Langoors, Neel Gais, Deer or any other animal. The evening before there had been Leopard sighting in the forest so it was good for all the tourists who had visited on these two days. 

Panna is known for diamond mining but much to Devicka's disappointment, the permission from government is required for visit to the mines and that takes time. The evening at the lodge was spent in front of a bonfire with drinks and sadly due to the pandemic not much socialising happened between the tourists. Our next destination was Khajurao but that was very near so we had enough time on our hands in the morning to explore the areas around. It was a beautiful drive with forests on both sides as we drove towards the Panna town. On the way we stopped at Pandav caves and falls which were very nice. Apparently the Pandavs had spent some time of the 'vanvas' here. There was no water in the waterfalls and the falls only get active during monsoons. We saw some pictures which the guide showed us and the area really looked beautiful with the falls in action. Tiger sighting is not very common here but the Tiger does come by once in a while and the guide did show us a few pictures. 

At the Pandav Caves

Panna itself was a small congested town with narrow lanes but it boasts of some really pretty temples of Bundela era. The Baldeoji temple is actually inspired by Roman architecture and has a gothic feel to it. There were other temples like 'Jugal kishore' and 'Ram Janki' etc and we visited them quickly before heading the same route we had come from, as Khajurao was situated between Orchha and Panna.

Khajurao and its magnificient temples

I liked Khajurao. The road leading to the city was nice and broad. It was just around 20-30 minutes from the Panna Sanctuary. On our route Khajurao turn came first and then then Panna sanctuary and then Panna town. We had decided to do Panna before Khajurao so drove back to Khajurao. The avenue did not have Khajoor (date palms) trees or any exciting stuff. We crossed the swanky new Airport terminal which has remained shut with no flights in last couple of years due to Covid. We checked into Clark's hotel at around noon before driving to the 'Western group of temples' further down the road. Clark's had huge grounds and it was a great property for walks, jogging etc. All the other famous hotels like Chandela etc were also similar with low rise buildings and lot of grounds. They were on same road near each other. It so happened that my friend Anjani was also visiting Khajurao at the same time with his family. We had studied together in same school and then were room mates in College in Delhi. So we met up briefly for a drink in evening and met up each other's family.

Built by Chandelas around a 1000 year ago these temples of Khajurao are famous for the erotic images they display. As you enter the complex gates, the maintenance of the place catches your attention. It is all very clean and serene. The temples are spread out over a large area and the lawns were beautifully maintained. We took a guide for Rs 1600 but it was really worth it as he was quite knowledgeable and had the requisite patience and style to impart his knowledge. 

It soon became apparent that though the erotic images were an integral part of the intricate work presented by great workmanship, they remained just one part of the entire concept of 'day to day life' of those times. What has been displayed in the temples are gods and goddesses of those times, the way people dressed, the way people worked, the way people celebrated, the way armies lived and the way people had sex (natural and unnatural). War, peace, alcohol, fashion and sex is all depicted very clearly and beautifully. To depict what they did a thousand years ago in such a fashion shows the thinking of the rulers of those times. The guide also emphasised on the Hindu way of life at those times which is depicted in all those beautiful temples. The temples are all tall and built on huge platforms - perhaps to protect them from floods or other natural elements. 

Army sepoys having sex with horse. 

One temple has been left outside the gated complex for people to pray and all others are well maintained inside the complex. So this makes the complex exclusive and it is not the religious tourist but tourist looking for history who visits Khajurao. With the Covid - there are no foreign tourists now and the domestic tourists have also dried up. The lawns inside the complex are beautiful and the atmosphere is nice. One can spend a lot of hours in the complex. Due to the holiday time a few people were there otherwise the guide told us that not many visitors come nowadays. 

The temples got saved from invaders for several centuries as after the Chandela dynasty, the temples almost ceased to exist as they got hidden in thick forests. For almost 800 years no one knew of their existence otherwise I doubt if the invaders would have left them intact seeing the kind of work there was on them. It had Hindu gods and goddesses and also the explicit sexual carvings which would not have been tolerated by the North Indian rulers who ruled between 1100 to 1900 AD. 

The visit to Khajurao had been long overdue and I am glad we could do it. It's a trip which we all must make to learn what India was all about more than a thousand years ago. Pictures speak better than manuscripts and Khajurao temples are all about pictures.