Should I go to India? (Rajasthan)

It’s difficult to imagine a country more diverse than India. With 22 official languages, 6 major religions and countless traditions and cultures, your experiences in India will depend greatly on the areas you visit. Of the places we visited, Rajasthan was the most flaunting of their customs and traditions, and no matter where you travel there, you get a taste of the individual cultures that make up this desert state.

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Rajasthan is a state located in north-western India. Although it is mostly famous because of its Thar Desert, Rajasthan has much more going on than just sand. We visited 5 cities (and could have doubled that number if we’d had the time) and had some pretty awesome experiences. Here are some of the highlights of Rajesthan.

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Palaces and Forts

Prior to its independence from England in 1947, India didn’t look the way it does today. Although it is now a democratic country, India used to be made up of several small city states, run by kings. As a result, there is an abundance of history in Rajasthan and if you like seeing antiques and learning about the past, the palaces and forts in Rajasthan are excellent ways to spend your afternoons.

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Rajasthan’s forts speak volumes about India’s past. The different colours seen here are because these two areas were built in different times and of different materials

The fees to get into some of these palaces were quite high, and from what I heard from other tourists, not always worth the money. In Udaipur, we opted to skip the palace because of the high camera fee. We were relieved to hear from a couple later on that it had been wise to skip it; there was little more than a few paintings to see. In other places, like Jodpur for example, the forts (and attached palaces), are well worth your time and money.

Many of the hotels in Rajasthan are actually old palaces and government buildings from past rulers. We stayed in several of these buildings, known as Havelis, while in Rajesthan…each had beautiful architecture and interesting rooms.


Architecture

Each city we visited in Rajasthan seemed to have a nickname. Jaipur is ‘The Pink City’. Udaipur is ‘The Lake City’, Pushkar is ‘The Pilgrimage City’, Jaisalmer ‘The Golden City’ and Jodpur ‘The Blue City’. Each of these nicknames comes from the unique architecture and geography in the area.

Jaisalmer impressed me the most with its beautiful sandstone carvings. Not only is the golden colour of the sandstone beautiful, but the intricate detail found all around the city is a photographer’s dream.

Similarly, Udaipur’s gorgeous hotels built along the lake are a sight to see. The white buildings reflect on the lake, giving the city a serene atmosphere.

And if the cities themselves aren’t beautiful enough for you, the temples and other landmarks in India are also sights to behold. After all, the Taj Mahal is just one of India’s famed buildings…there are many, many more!!


Markets

If shopping is your favourite pass-time during travel, Rajasthan is for you! Every city we visited had markets where you can check out Rajasthan’s unique textiles. And, for a state famous for its desert, you wouldn’t believe the colour you’ll see in these markets!!

Among the best cities for shopping were Pushkar and Udaipur. While the shopkeepers in Jodpur and Jaipur were pushy and known to chase you down the street…Pushkar and Udaipur had a much calmer feel to them. There was an abundance of art and textiles (bedding, scarves, clothing etc…) to see everywhere we visited in Rajesthan, you could only really peacefully visit shops in these two smaller cities. We bought the majority of our souvenirs in Pushkar, where the prices were fair and where I was given the chance to try things on without people grabbing my arms and trying to drag me into different stores (a frequent experience in Jodpur!)

Of course, you do need to be careful when shopping in Rajasthan. The prices aren’t nearly as inflated as they are in the Golden Triangle, but you will still be ripped off if someone sees the opportunity. Pushkar specifically had an interesting scam that involved locals trying to push you into paying for flowers that are originally presented as being free. A rule of thumb in Pushkar…people are really nice…just DON’T BUY THE FLOWERS!!!! And, of course, be weary of anyone telling you that their products are 100% Kashmir or Pashmina…they most likely aren’t. I paid 1000 rupees for a scarf that I saw for 400 rupees only a few days later in one of the smaller cities. Be skeptical of initial prices and BARGAIN HARD! (even when they try and make you feel like you’re ripping them off…it’s part of their shtick)

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I saw these table clothes for 500 rupees in the market. We ended up buying 3 of them from a gentleman in Jaisalmer, who was selling them for some of the women living out of the city. We paid only 100 rupees each and we knew he was STILL making good money on our purchases.

Wildlife and Landscape

Rajasthan is THE place to visit if you are interested in diverse landscapes and wildlife. From monkeys to cows, there won’t be a day you don’t see an animal while in India. And because Rajasthan covers such a large area, the landscapes change a great deal as you travel around the state.

The farm life within the cities is astounding. Not only cows roam the streets of Jaipur and Jaisalmer, but also goats, sheep, pigs and chickens…

There are monkeys all over the place in Rajasthan! I’m always afraid of being bitten because monkeys can be so aggressive, but the zoom on my camera made it easy to get some good close ups of these cool little dudes…

And of course, I can’t forget about the friends we made in the desert

The most remarkable animals we saw in Rajasthan were the famed Demoiselle Cranes we saw outside of Udaipur. These cranes are famous because they have the most difficult migration of any bird on earth. Not only do they need to fly over the Himalayan mountains to get to their breeding grounds in India…but they get attacked and eaten by Golden Eagles along the way! Don’t believe me? Watch Planet Earth! We watched the episode about Mountain Landscapes after we got home, just to see the cranes that we’d been lucky enough to see up close in Rajasthan!


Some Cautionary Tales

There are far more ups than downs visiting Rajasthan. For Dave and I, the biggest downer was our driver, who was strange and actually pretty terrible at his job. Look around for drivers that have good reviews before booking because you’ll be spending 35+ hours in a car with that person…and trust me…you don’t want a guy who plays the same 5 minute Ohm on repeat the entire time! It can really ruin a trip!

Additionally…it’s a good idea to book ahead of time. While it’s often better to book tours once you’re IN a country, you will be overwhelmed with the number of tour guides trying to sell you packages once you’re in New Delhi. Many of them will lie to you to get your business (ours assured us that they were government run…they were not!) and they will all try and rip you off. Check Trip Adviser before you get tied in with anyone in India.

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Also…make sure you’ll be being driven around in a decent car. This was our driver and car…the driver was ok…the car was nice. I can’t imagine how horrible it would have been to spend 35 hours in something without proper suspension!

Aside from drivers…make sure to look around before buying things so you get a feel for what prices are in markets. Don’t believe anyone who tells you their scarves are 100% anything…they are lovely, and I wouldn’t discourage you from buying 1 (or 3…), but I would caution you to limit how much you spend. Most of the time, the Kashmir or Pashmina scarf they’re selling you is mostly silk or even polyester.

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And, of course, I highly recommend that you make purchases at places like Belissima…shops that specialize in art and textiles being made by people in need…This particular shop helps women who have been widowed or who were never married. (it’s located in Jaisalmer fort…there are signs everywhere so it shouldn’t take long to find!!)

So there you have it…Rajasthan is chalk full of things for every type of tourist. From gorgeous landscapes to intricate architecture, you’ll find something interesting at every stop you make. If I could do things differently, I would have taken 3 of the days we had in New Delhi and added them to our time in Rajasthan so we could have seen Bikaner or Rathambore. Perhaps some day I’ll get the chance…

Movin’ Mumbai – Bustlin’ Bombay

We are sitting at The Mark Cafe, a 2 minute walk from the River Ganges, and it’s Valentine’s day.  Dave and I have a habit of spending the most romantic day of the year in foreign countries, and although this Valentines day has probably been the furthest thing from Romance that we’ve seen, it’s been interesting in its own right.  I’ll be writing about Varanasi, or Banares, next time though.  For now, I’ll be writing about the mayhem that is Mumbai.

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The Mumbai Skyline

Mumbai, formerly called Bombay (during the Brittish rule of India), is a port city on India’s west coast.  It’s the home of Bollywood, the world’s largest open-air street food market and is also India’s most populous city.  There isn’t a whole lot to do in Mumbai, so we didn’t stay very long, but a day and a half was ample time to see the sights that deserve to be seen.

 

What makes Mumbai so remarkable, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is its architecture.  Because the city has been under both Portuguese and British rule in addition to its Hindu and Muslim history, there are so many interesting buildings to see!

One of the difficulties of being in Bombay though, is the security…

There’s some ugly history here.  Some fundamentalist Hindu groups have caused problems for the Muslim population (killing over 1000 Muslims in 1992 and 1993 during riots) and in return, Muslim fundamentalist groups have bombed popular tourist sights and other places of interest in Mumbai.  There has been peace in the city now since 2011, but as precaution, there are metal detectors going into every shopping mall and every tourist sight.  Even going to Starbucks, means having your bag searched, being patted down and walking through a metal detector.  Scary stuff…

But not all of Mumbai was scary…like every city in India, they have an abundance of farm animals running through the streets….Also, the taxis here all have funny designs on their ceilings.  They’re quite nice actually, as far as taxis go.  And everyone uses their meters so HAZZAA!!!  No arguing required!!

My next post will be about the most insane city I have ever visited…stay tuned for my post on Varanasi – Home of the River Ganges.

Bangkok’s Grand Palace

Guiyang is truly a city of extremes.  Just yesterday, the temperature was 30 degrees Celsius, and I had the windows in my classroom open so I could enjoy the cool breeze and the sun’s rays.   Today, the view that lies before me as I blog at our favorite hang out (I’ll give you 3 guesses…) couldn’t be more different.   People are bundled up, with the arms around themselves trying to stay warm.  There was a 20 degree drop over night and Guiyang is once more overcast and dreary.  I’m grateful for the little bit of sun we did get, but I am a tad mournful that our two nicest days were the days that I spend inside, teaching back to back classes.

Here are some pictures from our lovely weekend:

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People are planing vegetables
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Our garden in Zhong Tian is green and beautiful once more
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Even the buildings weren’t as drab this weekend. Everything was brighter when the sun was out.

And Guiyang now…

But whether isn’t the only way Guiyang likes to shock us with its extremes.  For example:

"Is this a dump", you might ask yourself.
“Is this a dump”, you might ask yourself.

Nope…not even close…

It's the entrance to the school where I work
It’s the entrance to the school where I work

To be fair, the area isn’t usually THIS bad, but one of the businesses in the building is renovating and decided to dump all their garbage outside the back doors.  I’m terrified a rat is going to jump out the garbage heap and attack me.

IMAG1651And if garbage heaps aren’t enough for you, there are also these open gutters to scare the bajeepers out of you.   The local noodle place and many other little businesses (as well as pedestrians) throw their garbage in here and it’s developing quite the collection.  This could be solved by putting a metal grate over the gutter, but that would probably be too much work, so instead I have to hop over this to get to the school daily.  I’m not going to lie…the first time I saw it I gagged a little lol.  Scooters sometimes drive over it and splash people as they walk by….when that happens, you have to walk around smelling like garbage water all day.  Not fun…

But not all of Guiyang is open sewers and garbage piles…if you drive for 10 minutes to HuaGuoYuan, then you get this view:

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Fountains and lit up buildings

Or 5 minutes away from the school, this area is also quite new and shiny:

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And then of course, there’s the nicest building in Guiyang…
Whiiiccchhhh caught fire the other night...
Whiiiccchhhh caught fire the other night…

So yes, Guiyang is the city of contrast.  But I suppose I should get on to writing about a place that has no contrast at all.  The Grand Palace in Bangkok Thailand has one mode:  Go Grand, or Go Home!!!

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In addition to gorgeous architecture, the Palace is home to many gardens and carefully trimmed trees.

The Grand Palace has been home to Thailand’s Royalty since 1782.  Today, the grounds are more of a tourist attraction than anything, but Royal ceremonies and State functions are still held there several times a year.

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Despite the high fees to get into the palace, tourists flock here. Trip adviser probably has something to do with it, as the palace is considered Bangkok’s #1 attraction.

I was surprised to learn that The Grand Palace is not a singular giant structure, but really a large number of small buildings that vary in a great deal of ways.  In the 200 years that the Palace has sat in Bangkok, pavilions, chapels and halls were erected, all reflecting the time period in which they were built.  The resulting diversity within the grounds is fascinating.

For example...
For example…

Also worth noting is the sheer size of the Grand Palace.  At 2,351,000 sq feet, it would take several hours to view the whole Palace, a feat neither Dave or myself were ready to take on.  We arrived on February 19th, under a scorching Bangkok sun.  Between the heat, the tourists and our long pants and shirts (there is a strict dress code at The Grand Palace), we weren’t up for seeing the grounds in their entirety.  So we hit up the major attractions and took lots of breaks in any shaded areas we could find.

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The perimeter walls were covered in elaborate murals. Seeing as how this was one of the few places where we could find shade, I spent a great deal of time admiring them.
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Most of the murals showed Buddhist mythology and war stories during different king’s reigns.

But if I were to tell you that the diversity of the buildings or the size of the place were the most remarkable things about The Grand Palace, I would be doing it a great disservice.  No amount of photography could possible capture the elaborate detail here.  Every inch of every building was designed to be beautiful and ornate.  It was so Grand that if you didn’t stop and actually look at it, you might not even notice the level of detail at all.  It is all THAT detailed!!!

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You can easily see that this building is gorgeous without even having to look at it closely.
But up close, you can see that all the colour on the columns going up the building are actually designs made one small piece of stone at a time.
But if you move closer, you can see that the colorful parts going up the building are actually elaborately designed flowers…

 

Similarly, this building is covered in small stones..it isn't just paint that makes it look so ornate...
Similarly, this building is covered in small stones..it isn’t just paint that makes it look so ornate…
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This steeple is beautiful in of itself.
But if you zoom in closer you see an insane level of detail on each of the mythological creatures
But if you zoom in closer you see an insane level of detail on each of the mythological creatures
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Here is a close up on one of the tours of one of the smaller buildings on the grounds

We walked around for about an hour, taking pictures of different halls and structures.  We went into a few buildings as well, although we weren’t allowed having our cameras out in them.  I understand the reasoning, to an extent.  Having cameras flashing while Buddhists try and pray in front of the sacred Emerald Buddha would be incredibly disrespectful.  Still, as a non-Buddhist I was a little sad I couldn’t get a shot or two in while in Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  I did manage to get one decent shot from outside the building though, and I found a picture online of the different robes he wears, depending on the season.

He isn't very big, but he is very beautiful.
He isn’t very big, but he is very beautiful.
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There are 3 distinct seasons in Thailand, so there are 3 robes for the Buddha to wear

We also saw some of the Throwns that former Kings used while living in the Grand Palace, which was sort of neat.  We also weren’t able to take pictures in those buildings, but one of them had a massive fan where I was able to cool down!  It was a highlight of the day for me!! haha!!

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More of the beautiful buildings we saw
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The cloud cover didn’t help very much with cooling us down.
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To understand the size of these buildings, look at the people in the front of the building for reference.
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A photographer’s heaven 🙂
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I love the style of this building

 

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The guards at the front gate
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A close up of one of the guards

There are actual guards at the Palace too.  Just like you’d see at Buckingham Palace, tourists were making faces and taking pictures with the guards, as they solemnly stood guard to some of the more important buildings on the grounds.

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We couldn’t go into this building. I think this is one of the places where Government meetings are still held now.

So that is The Grand Palace.  I’m not disappointed that we went, but I can hardly say that it was the highlight of our Bangkok experience.  I suppose Dave and I tend to not like the really ‘touristy’ stuff, so that could be why I didn’t enjoy it more.  But on the other hand, the history lover in me LOVED seeing the different buildings.  It’s definitely worth a stop while you’re in Bangkok!!

My next post is going to be about night life in Thailand!  I’ll be writing about the famous Bangla Road in Phuket, Kao San Road in Bangkok and of course, the famed Thai Lady-Boys!!

Thanks for stopping by!!