One night in Mashobra

Recently I received a holiday voucher for two nights in Club Mahindra, Mashobra, from my bank. I had not been to Mashobra though I had visited Shimla about 39 years ago, I decided to accept the offer.

Mashobra is a small town near Shimla on the India Tibet road made by Lord Dalhousie at a height of about 7041 feet. Although for an average tourist there is nothing much of interest and most people whom I met during me stay at the Club Mahindra, Mashobra used to travel to Shimla every day.

Early morning in Mashobra. View from my Hotel room.
Early morning trek to Craignano Nature Park.

However if you are a traveller, you can go for long walks in the hills. Although I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that most of the roads have too much traffic for walking and due to continued construction, there was a lot of dust on the roads.

The resort, is quite nice and offers good view of the town & sunrise and sunsets. The food is also good and you can sit in their lawns with a book or just enjoy the sun.

Mashobra town is a part of the Shimla Water catchment and the vegetation is mainly of beautiful blue pines, oak and cedar trees. You also encounter a number of birds and monkeys as you walk on the roads.

Blue pines trees.
Part of the Mahasu Shiv Temple grounds.
Mahasu Shiv Temple.

Sadly the way infrastructure is being developed, if you choose use public transport for travel to Mashobra from Delhi you face many hurdles. Top most is that Volvo buses ply only in the night and the others are connectivity with Shimla by local buses, haphazard traffic and traffic jams. Honestly this killed my joy of visiting this hill town so close to Delhi.

From Club Mahindra you can visit the (currently under development) Craignano Nature Park on the Shimla Naldehra National Highway at an altitude of 7700 feet.  It is set on a cliff and it is about 4 kms from the resort. The place has many blue pine, oak trees and a number of flower beds planted recently by the park authorities.

Craignano Nature Park.
Inside Craignano Nature Park.
Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.
Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.
Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.
Inside Craignano Nature Park.
Inside Craignano Nature Park.
Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.
Inside Craignano Nature Park.
Inside Craignano Nature Park.
Inside Craignano Nature Park.
Sunset in Mashobra.

To reach here you have to walk through the village where the dust from the construction and passing vehicles makes the walk a bit uncomfortable. If you take your private car or taxi to reach there, personally for me the purpose of being in the hills is lost. I feel that given its location and current facilities, Craignano Nature Park will always have very little foot fall and it is a waste of tax payer’s money.

Enroute you pass through the Mahasu Shiv Temple where earlier bull fights were arranged but after Supreme Court banned them, the fair has lost many admirers and the temple its devouts. I wonder if it still part of the half day temple tour from Shimla.

Well, my Mashobra journey lasted two days and one night. Till a new adventure starts, hang on.

 

 

 

 

 

CambodiaDiary – Three nights in Siem Reap

Our flight from Hanoi reached Siem Reap, Capital of Cambodia in the late evening. As soon as I got out of the aircraft the beauty of Siem Reap International Airport struck me. Built in Aug 2006, it is one of the busiest airports in Cambodia and we had to wait in a couple of queues before we were ushered out. Hopefully Cambodian Governments’ plan to develop a new airport 60 kms away will help tourists in future.

Siem Reap International Airport.
Pub Street.
Pub Street.
Pub Street.
Pub Street.
Old market, Siem Reap.
Old market, Siem Reap.

By the time we checked into our Hotel Ibis Styles it was dinner time so we headed out.  Ibis Styles is strategically located, a few hundred meters away from both the Old Market and the Pub Street. Both of them are a must see, if you are visiting Cambodia, as this is where all the action happens.

The Pub Street is lined with pubs and bar as the name suggests and some of the best eating places are in this area. Though we were visiting Siem Reap in September, not really the season, the sights and sounds made me wonder how it will be in the peak season. The place was absolutely magical with some street performers also performing live. Street food in Cambodia is a must try. There are many Chinese style buildings in the town and in the evenings when they are all lit up gives a very magical aura to the market and alleys.

When the French first arrived in Cambodia, Siem Reap was a little more than a village. In the late 19th century, after the French Explorer Henri Mouhot re-discovered Angkor Wat, that tourists started visiting it.

The city’s history is largely shadowed by the horrors of Khmer Rouge’s regime but after Pol Pot died in 1998, stability has returned and tourists footfall has increased many folds leading to an overall development of the country. It is now listed among the top 10 travel destinations by various travel magazines.

Bridge over the Siem Reap river.
Street Food of Siem Reap.

On the right hand side of our hotel was the Siem Reap river which had a few  pedestrian bridges connecting the cluster of tiny villages across the river. The villages were developed around the Buddhist Pagodas (Wat) there.

Early next morning we were picked up by our Tour Guide who took us to the Angkor Wat, a temple complex, one of the largest religious sites in the World. The temple complex is in the ruins of the ancient Angkor city, which was the seat of Khmer Kingdom during the 9th and 15th century. During those days Angkor was a mega city supporting 0.1% of the world’s population during 1010-1220. The main temple Angkor Wat also appears on Cambodia’s flag.

Pedestrian bridge across the Siem Reap River.
Angkor Wat temples.
Wall carvings in Angkor Wat temples.

The Angkor Wat is an UNESCO World Heritage site and is well preserved. It was built in the 12th century (113-115 BC) and it is estimated that it took 30 years to build it. It was King Suryavarman’s dedication to Lord Vishnu and the main temple resembles Mount Meru.

This was a funerary temple for King Suryavarman and that is why it is oriented to west symbolizing the setting sun and death and is designed for viewing from left to right in conformity of the Hindu funeral rituals.

Wall carvings in Angkor Wat temples.
The fight of GODs and Demons for Amrit.
Hundreds of years old trees, Angkor Wat temples.
Angkor Wat temples.

The walls of the temple complex are covered by images of Hindu mythology. Carvings on the stone tell the story of how GODs fought the Demon Kings and recovered the elixir of life, Amrit. The entry and exit to the temple complex is only be through the west gate.

There are a number of other temples surround the Angkor Wat. The word “Wat” means temple in Khmer language and was added during 16th century, when this became a Theravada Buddhist monument. After the Capital of Cambodia was moved to Phnom Penh in 1432, the temple was cared for by the Buddhist monks.

Lord Buddha, hidden in a tree trunk.

Next day our holiday in this beautiful country came to an end as we took an early morning flight home via Bangkok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 12 – The Temple of Literature

Next day we had our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Hanoi. Since the flight was in the early evening, I decided to visit The Temple of Literature as it was right across the street from the place we were staying in.

The Temple of Literature all lit up @night.
Temple of Literature

It is a beautiful structure and probably the most picturesque. It was built in 1070 during the reign of Emperor Ly Thanh Tong of Tran Dynasty as a dedication to the great Scholar and Sage, Confucius.  The buildings are built in typical Vietnamese styles and are well preserved. It houses Vietnam’s first national university, the Imperial Academy. There are various halls, statues and pavilions where study sessions, offering ceremonies are held.

The Temple of Literature appears on a 100,000 Vietnamese Dong bank note. Every Vietnamese New Year, calligraphers assemble and write wishes in Han characters and distribute them people as gifts, which they hang in their homes as decorations for special occasions.

On VND 100,000 banknote. (photo from internet)

The temple is modeled on the Temple in Shandong in eastern China covering an area of 54,000 square meters. The entrance is via the main gate with four tall pillars in the front. The gate opens onto three pathways which continue through the complex. The center path was used by the Emperor, the left path was for the administrative Mandarins while the right path was used by the military. Over the centre path is a big bronze bell which was rung to announce that an important person was on way and can be touched by the monks only.

Inside there are five courtyards. The first courtyards have trimmed trees and lawns where the scholars used to relax. The first courtyard leads to the second pavilion, the Khue Van. The third pavilion has a Thein Quang well and on either sides are two great halls housing the temple’s treasures.

A Calligrapher.

You enter the fourth pavilion through the third via Dai Thanh gate, which has two smaller gates on the sides. In the fifth pavilion is the Imperial Academy where students lived and studied for three to seven years.

It is one place you should visit when you have adequate time and preferably with a guide.

From here I went to the place we were staying and then off to the Airport. For my Cambodia travel check out my next blog.

VietnamDiary 11 – The Lan Ha bay cruise.

For every tourist visiting Vietnam, Ha Long bay, is a must visit place. Not only due to the fact that it is a part of the new seven wonders of the world but also because of its sheer natural beauty and charm.

In local Vietnamese language Ha Long means a descending dragon. It is believed that when Vietnam begin to develop as a country, Gods sent a dragon to prevent the invaders from attacking the people who were starting a life here.

There are two more beautiful bays neighboring it namely Lan Ha bay and Tu Long bay. We chose the Lan Ha bay for two reasons, first it is far away from Hanoi so not many tourists boats venture here and secondly there are many white sand beaches. Also it is the best place for sailing and kayaking. In fact my personal view is that you do not have to visit all three, pick one and enjoy.

Map showing the Ha Long bay and its surrounding bays. (pic source Internet)
Lan Ha bay.
Lan Ha bay.
Floating shop comes to your cruise ship.

Lan Ha bay lies on south and east of Cat Ba town but it is part of a different province of Vietnam as a result ships from Ha Long bay are not allowed to enter in to La Ha bay due to provincial restrictions. There are many species of fish, Mollusca, hard and soft corals and some large marine animals such as seals and dolphins, though there are very few of them.

From here you go in a small boat to see caves.
Kayaking.
The limestone caves.
The Limestone caves.

It occupies an area of about 1553 sq kms made up of about 2000 limestone islets, formed in almost 500 million years. Human presence in this area has been confirmed by historical research. In 1994, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our trip from Hanoi started early and we drove to the Cat Ba town. From here we were transferred to the Cruise ship via a smaller boat. After we were transferred to the Cruise ship we really felt happy that we chose Era Cruise. It was a new ship and the suites, decks, food and staff were all really superb. We could not have asked for more.

The Limestone caves.
Our Cruise ship.
Sunset @Lan Ha bay.
Sunrise @Lan Ha bay. It was a bit cloudy that day.

The first activity was a sumptuous lunch after which we went to see the caves. On return it was time for swimming and kayaking followed by music and drinks on the deck. Post dinner we called it a day as we had to rise early to see the sunrise.

The morning began with a Tch chi class on the deck, followed by a brunch. After that we were transferred back to the Cat Ba island for our return journey to Hanoi.

 

VietnamDiary 10 – A day trip to Hao Lu and Tam Coc village.

Next day we went for a day tour to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam and Tom Coc village. The tour started from the Old Quarters where we were met by a driver and a minibus outside the travel company through whom we had booked the tour.

Layout of the ancient capital.
Main entrance of the city & temples.
Main gate.
The temple.

The ancient capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu was laid out in a valley between steep limestone mountains. The idea was to have protection via these mountains which even today are mainly accessible to mountain goats. Hoa Lu lies between rice fields about 90 kms from away from Hanoi.

Dinh Tien Hoang, the first Dinh emperor founded this city in 968 AD following years of civil unrest and a bitter war with the Chinese. There are two temples built in honour of Dinh Tien Hoang, Le Dai Hanh and Queen Durong Van Nga, who was first married to the first king and then later married to the second one. The tomb of Dinh Tien is also here.

In 1010, after the death of Le Dai Hanh, the new King Ly Cong Uan moved the capital to Thang Long which is now known as Hanoi.

After visiting the ancient capital we headed straight for a Vietnamese Buffet Lunch which was good with a vast variety of items.

Though their respective governments do not recognise each other, the ordinary people are least affected, Malaysians and Israelis on the same table.

Our next stop was the Tam Coc village, which is also called the inland Halong Bay. You take a 1.5 – 2 hours boat ride to see the three flooded caves which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Vietnamese, Tam Coc actually means “three caves”, Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Ba, all three of them are on the Ngo Dong River. This area is particularly beautiful and boat ride is fun. It is interesting to see both men and women pedal the boats with their feet. We also toured the village on bicycles.

Tam Coc Village.
It is interesting to see who these women row the boats with their feet.
The flooded caves.
A women selling cold drinks and fruits.
The flooded caves.

Tam coc village.

VietnamDiary 9 – Hanoi tour continues.

Next day we started our Ha Noi exploration trip from West Lake, Vietnam’s biggest freshwater lake. It has a shore length of 17 kms with gardens, hotels, restaurants and entertainment centers.  The residential area around it is prime real estate of the city.

West Lake.
West Lake.
Restaurants and hotels around the West Lake.

The  historical Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Pagoda in Vietnam (1,450 years) is right in the middle of this lake. It was built by Ly Nam De in the 6th century. Then there is Quan Thanh Temple, one of the four sacred temples of ancient Ha Noi. The Chu Van An High School, oldest high schools in Vietnam is also close to the lake.

In the pagoda grounds is a Bodhi tree, which is a cutting from the original Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India given as a gift to Vietnam by the visiting Indian President, Dr Rajendra Prasad.

The Quan Thanh Temple dates back to the 11th century and is dedicated to Xuan Wu, one of the principal deities in Taoism. As one of the four temples it was built to protect the old city from the evil spirits.

After lunch we headed straight to the Old Quarters and Haon Kiem Lake.

Haon Kiem in Vietnamese means the “Lake of the returned Sword”. The lake is in 12 hectares and is the most beautiful and happening part of Ha Noi. There are number of hotels and restaurants surrounding the lake and in the evening this are looks magical with coloured lights.

In the middle of the lake is the Turtle Tower. It was built on the Turtle islet, a fishing site during the 17th century.

The Old Quarters is the ancient part of town which has existed since the imperial times outside the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Each street here specializes in one type of manufacturing  or commerce. There are about 76 streets where there are number of Hotels, restaurants and bars. This is one place where action never stops way past midnight.  It is still the main shopping area of the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 8 – Ha Noi tour continues.

Next day we began our Hanoi tour with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square. The mausoleum is a massive granite structure which took 2 years to complete and was inaugurated on 29 August 1975. It is the final resting place of the great leader also called Uncle Ho.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

It was Ho Chi Minh’s wish that his body should be cremated and his ashes are scattered over the North, Centre and South of the country. However the Vietnam government did exactly the opposite and gave him a treatment like the Soviets do to their leaders. They embalmed his body and installed it in an imposing concrete and granite structure modeled on Lenin’s in Moscow.

As no photography is allowed inside the mausoleum, I could not take any pictures.

Our next stop was  Ho Chi Minh Museum which was built to express the deep gratitude, people of Vietnam have for their President. It contains account of his life and his personal effects. The museum was inaugurated on his 100th birth anniversary.

The Presidential Palace is quite huge and grandeur and during his revolutionary life he lived and worked here. He was in fact a simple man who lived a simple life in a custom-built stilt house, behind the Palace till his death.

Presidential Palace.
Stilt house.
President’s car.
President’s car.
A pond in the palace premises adds to its beauty.

Mango path where Uncle Ho used to walk and do his morning exercise.

Next on our list was the One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple. Emperor Ly Thai Tong built this one pillar pagoda in the middle of a Lotus pond during his rule during 1028 to 1054. He was childless and one day in his dream he met the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshva, who handed him a baby son while seated on a Lotus flower.

The Pagoda is built of wood, on a single stone pillar 1.25 m in diameter and 4 m in height, and it is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, which is a Buddhist symbol of purity.

In 1954, the original was destroyed by the French before withdrawing from Vietnam after the First Indochina War. The current one was rebuilt later.

One Pillar Pagoda.
Ho Chi Minh Museum.
Ho Chi Minh Statue in the General Introduction Hall.
Uncle Ho at his desk.

The other attractions were covered next day.

 

VietnamDiary 7 – Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour

The Hanoi Hop on-Hop off Bus Tour starts from the Old Quarters at 900 hours and there is a bus every 30 minutes. There are a total of 13 stops where you can hop on or hop off and the tour ends at the starting point.

We got on to the bus from The Temple of Literature and covered the following Hanoi attractions. The rest of the attractions, we did it on our own.

Hoa Lo Prison

This prison was in use during the French occupation of Vietnam and was mainly used  to house the political prisoners. Later North Vietnam used it for U S Prisoners during the American War. Ironically in those days the Americans called it the Hanoi Hilton.

Layout of the prison.
Pictures and drawings of the prison in those days.
The main Gate.
The Cell D – for male prisoners designed for 40 prisoners. But sometimes it even had up to 100 prisoners.
Cachot area – “hell of the hell:, meant for prisoners who broke prison laws.

The name Hoa Lo in Vietnamese means the fiery furnace as there were lot of stores selling wood stoves and coal fire stoves on that street. In fact this was the village which produced earthen home appliances such as kettles, teapots and portable stoves.

In those days the prison occupied an area of 12,908m making it the largest fortified prison in IndoChina. It was later demolished in 1990 except the gatehouse, which is now the Museum.

Opera House

The Opera House is modeled on the Palais Garnier, Paris as it was built during 1910-11 by the French. Various cultural programmes, performances, concerts and Government functions are held here.

The Flag Tower of Hanoi

It is a very important landmark of the city standing tall at 41 m (including the Vietnam flag). It was built during the Nguyen dynasty as an observation post to the Hanoi Citadel in 1812.

The Flag Tower of Hanoi.
Wreckage of French and American planes which were shot down.
Canons.
Wreckage of American B 52 D bomber which was shot down.

Unlike some other landmarks it was not destroyed during the French invasion as it was used as a military post. Now it is part of the Vietnam Military History Museum.

The museum houses war photographs and war propaganda from Vietnam’s war with China, France and America. Many French and American planes captured are displayed here together with structures built out of wreckage of these planes.

For the other attractions, read my next blog.

VietnamDiary 6- The Independence Palace

 On our 2nd last day in Sai Gon, we went to another very important and historical landmark of the city, The Reunification Palace, which is now known as the Independence Palace.

This was built, in 1968 on the site of old Norodom Palace surrounded by beautiful palm trees.

The Independence Palace.
The Lobby.

During the American War, Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam worked and lived here with his family and decided to rename it to the Independence Palace.

However, just 8 years later it was destroyed by the bombing during a coup. The President later ordered the remains to be destroyed and a new palace to built in its place.

The new structure includes three main floors, 2 mezzanine floors, one terrace and one upper floor with 95 rooms each decorated in accordance with its function. It has two exhibition rooms and a 33 room Guest House. In 1975, it was captured by the Communists ending the Vietnam war. Now the Palace is used as a Museum only. The two original tanks used to capture it are parked in the Palace grounds.

While we were visiting the palace, there was a very good exhibition going on there called From Norodom Palace to Independence Palace, 1868-1966 in the two story villa, only colonial era building that stands on the ground of Independence Palace.

On the first floor of the building there were exhibits showing life in colonial Sai Gon. On the second floor, were the exhibits showing rise and fall of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, the destruction and rebuilding of the Independence Palace.

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 5 – The famous Mekong River Delta.

Another major landmark in Sai Gon, usually oversold to tourists is the Mekong River Delta. Historically this has been an important region of Vietnam right from Funan Kingdom as a trading port due to its proximity with present day Cambodia. Some even suggest that this was probably the capital of Funan Kingdom.

IMG_6325
The Mekong River Delta.
IMG_6360
The Mekong River Delta.
IMG_6416
The Mekong River Delta.
IMG_6367
The Mekong River Delta.

After Vietnam gained independence from France, this western part of Vietnam has contributed immensely to the rice production. It also supplies fruits and vegetables. It is often referred to as the “biological treasure trove” after many new animal species and plants have been discovered here. Overall it is Vietnam’s most productive region in agriculture and aquaculture. It has almost half of Vietnam’s capacity of offshore fishing vessels.

IMG_6356IMG_6369IMG_6372IMG_6380

The area is dominated by flat flood plains in the south and a few hills in the north and west. It also has a small forest region making it attractive to tour operators. However since it is low lying it is particularly susceptible to floods when the sea level rises.

Most of the people living in this area are local ethnic Viet but it is also has a the largest Khmer population outside Cambodia with some Chinese calling it home too. Life in general here revolves much around the river as many of the villages are often accessible by rivers and canals rather than by road.

In my view this region needs to be explored in leisure, however our tour operator and all others operating in this area have reduced it to taste the honey, see coconut candy being made, cruise on the water, see a temple, take a picture with a snake, see how rice paper is made and, of course, visit the floating markets. Thank you for visiting Mekong Delta.

IMG_6395
Coconuts shells are removed.
IMG_6396
Coconut is scapped.
IMG_6397
The scapped coconut is heated.
IMG_6398
The scapped coconut after heating and removing the oil is turned into a dough to make candies by rolling them in sugar.
The beans are grinded to make powder.
Coffee beans.