Vadodara

Trip Facts:

  • 9 nights
  • Patel Residence, Vadodara

Location:

After spending a couple of weeks in the states of Bengal and Sikkim, we flew to Vadodara, which is located in the state of Gujarat, located in western India. Formerly known as Baroda, Vadodara boasts a population over a million and is the third most populated city in the Indian State of Gujarat.

People & Family:

Gujarat is also the origin of our ancestry and we both still have family scattered throughout the state (me more than Jyoti). I was born in Gujarat in a small farming village by the name of Lacharras, moved to Vadodara after birth, and lived there until the age of four before relocating to the States. My grandmother still lives in the same house that my grandfather built over 40 years ago.

My father’s best friend, Vijay Gohil, is our main contact in the city. “Vijay Uncle”, as we fondly call him, is a unusually tall, gentle and loyal man who coordinates and plans anything and everything we could need, from a chauffeured vehicle, to breakfast waiting for us at our doorstep, to more important things like taking care of Baa (Grandma) and Dada (Grandpa -we miss you!) when they fall ill. Vijay Uncle is quite possibly the world’s nicest gentleman.

Ba and “daddy mummy guns”

Besides a desire to see the world, another big reason for our trip was to visit my Grandmother, “Chanchar” Baa. Those who have met her, and spent less than five minutes with her, know of her immense power. Chanchar-Baa is notorious for speaking her mind and although she can come off terse, she can also be hilarious.  If she doesn’t like you, she won’t hide it from anyone. In fact, she says this phrase quite often if someone bothers her or asks her too many questions, “thaari maa ni gaand”. We will leave it up to you readers to translate and figure out because translated into English, it is quite offensive! We shared this story with our friend Joyce who lives in China and she interpreted the phrase as “daddy mummy guns”, which we still laugh about to this day.

Culture

The culture is still very family focused and old world, with a slight hint of modern. The primary religion is Hinduism but there is also a strong Islamic community. Although there are over a million people living there, Vadodara still provides a village-like feel, and there’s plenty of urban sprawl and concrete jungles. Neighbors and family chat on front porches, and randomly show up to visit one another on a daily basis -there is a communal and laid back vibe. People frequently walk and ride bicycles, although mopeds, rickshaws and cars now dominate the roads. Seeing a family of four riding on a moped is quite common and once in a while you’ll even see five. For locals in the State of Gujarat, drinking is illegal which contributes to the homey feel of the place. You will see a motorcycle gang hanging out on the evening drinking Thumbs-Up (Indian version of Cola). Foreign passport holders are allowed to legally purchase alcohol from government shops but selection is limited and a can of beer will run you about 80Rs (about $2).

Food, Mangoes & fruit:

Gujarat is a predominantly vegetarian state and the food there is amazing. Its especially good because my parents have cooks for Chanchar Baa so they will cook anything we ask them to – this ends up in us both being spoiled rotten and gaining some pounds with a variety of delicious food including fresh fruit and sweets being constantly served to us! Restaurant food is relatively cheap, tasty, and of high quality, using fresh ingredients.

Summer is also mango season in India and is nothing short of amazing –this is the heavenly counter to the intense summer heat. There are countless varieties of mangoes, and the locals know the best ones to pick, like the Kesar mango which is one of the sweetest and juiciest in the world!

We became pretty close with our driver, Surendra-bhai, who was with us most of the time helping us get around without melting in his little AC car. Usually twice a day, we would go to Chancharba’s house to go visit and spend some time with her. Well one day, Chancharba convinced our driver to climb the huge mango tree in the back yard. Surrendra-bhai climbed up a stool, a ladder, and fence post, in order to successfully climb up the tree where he eventually knocked down 40 mangoes!

India house:

My mom and dad purchased a house in Racecourse Circle (center of town), seven years ago when we last took a family trip to India in 2004. The house is massive, especially by Indian standards, and within walking distance to theaters and malls. My parents have almost fully restored the 3 story, 5 bedroom and 6-bathroom house, which is where Jyoti and I stayed the entire time we were in Vadodara. Our parents were gracious enough to furnish and outfit our room with an A/C unit, which we could not have lived without (thanks mom and dad!). Our house had a family of two kittens and a mother living in our garden. They meowed in the mornings and we fed them milk. Cute!! We also enjoyed the birds that tweeted while they washed themselves in the pools of water after we irrigated the trees in the garden.

Heat:

Indian people always complain about the summer heat in India, and we intimately connected with this truth during this visit. It was blazing HOT-  a high of 47.7C which is nearly 118F! The summer heat builds up, getting more humid and even hotter, until just before the monsoons hit in June.

We were on top of the terrace of our house one day taking pictures when we noticed big thick dark clouds rolling in. The winds picked up, creating a sand storm effect, covering the entire city in dry dirt, leaves, and brush..  The sky turned black and opened up to sheer blankets of rain water falling from the sky as if the sky had a floor and the entire floor gave way at once sending water gushing down to earth. These early monsoon rains and associated winds destroyed signs & toppled billboards, snapping trees in half, while mangos and fruit trees shed much of their yield. The inclement weather causes short and long-term power failures that leave residents caught in the heat of summer, with monsoon humidity, and without electricity to run fans or portable air conditioners. We had our AC unit shut down due to power failures a couple of times, and trying to sleep at that time was like lying in a sauna.

Water Park

Located in Gandhinagar, the town of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, Swapna Shrushti boasts it is the world’s number 1 water park. This place (by our standards) is not professionally fit to service the public. We only went because it was a trip with close family friends so we decided to just go with the flow. Unfortunately, the water park was not flowing with much water at all.  Half of the rides were shut down and the other half that were open must only have operated on 20%-30% water as per the ride design requirements.

For example, you couldn’t actually swim in the swimming pool or even float in the water. There were inches of water when there should have been feet of water. The water was murky and filled with debris, not to mention its ethereal (yeah right!) glow– Ewwww! Every single water slide trickled water, enough so that even gravity combined with water could not pull us down the slide, people were getting stuck, standing up and walking down the slide to the “pool”.

Being at the water park with our friends brought an important matter in to the limelight for us. Life as a female is still quite different in India, and depending on your family or husband’s preference, level of comfort and independence can drastically vary too. Our friend’s husband required his wife to wear a sweater on top of her shirt the entire time we were at the water park to maintain a particular level of coverage. She was clearly uncomfortable wearing a heavy wet sweater and shirt, but he demanded she wear it. Men, however, can wear whatever they want, bikini briefs in many cases – YICK!  Jyoti slightly perturbed by this tipping of the scales in the boys’ favor, took out her anger on a slide attendant who tried to refuse her entry for wearing a cotton t-shirt (apparently it was the wrong type of material). She yelled at him and then dipped under the entry barrier, ignoring his commands to stop. It was pretty funny, especially when she ended up shimmying her way down the slide, working harder to make her way down than the effort to climb up!

The best thing about this place was “Snowfall”. They shut down all of the rides at the same time every day and create a big ruckus about how everyone needs to make their way to “Snowfall”. So naturally, ALL of the patrons make their way to ONE attraction to witness ice-shavings and hail-sized ice pellets being projected at the entire crowd. The crowd reacted to the chilling ice and painful cold ice pellets being projected at their heads and everyone ran around trying to get out of the way of fire (or ice in this case) colliding with any poor soul who came in their way. It was like a chaotic fury of freezing ice and hot sun creating mass panic, and the subsequent cooling relief from the blazing heat.

Leaving:

Overall, we had an amazing time in Vadodara and we were fortunate to be able to visit and spend time with family and friends. It is very important for us to preserve and maintain our culture by experiencing immersion with people that share our language and heritage, and all that comes along with that. This was a battle at times, given the Western standards we have come to know (and love), but overall it is liberating to forget about them and fully integrate into a completely different type of society.

On our way to Istanbul, we were forced to spend 15 hours at Mumbai airport, waiting for our early morning departure. We celebrated my birthday at the Blackberry restaurant and then spent about 13 torturous hours in a “waiting room” at the Mumbai international airport witnessing rambunctious farewells occur through a thick glass wall with phones. It was not the ideal way to spend a birthday, but we would end up more than making up for it the next night in Istanbul.

Ko Pha Ngan Pictures

Ko Pha Ngan

Trip Facts:

Getting there and around:

We took the first-class government bus from Phuket Town to Surat Thani which was about a 6 hour ride. Most of the buses are newer luxury coaches but our bus was most likely older than us, the A/C was broken, and it leaked when it rained. The goverment-run buses are usually a safer bet in terms of sticking to schedules, safety, and your bags are less likely to be compromised, but the comfort on ours was at the bottom end of the scale. You can get to Surat Thani from most major cities in Thailand, but almost all tourists will end up taking the ferry to Thong Sala Port in KPN.

The island itself is of small to medium size with a decent amount of roads connecting most of the island. The Northeast side of the island is the hardest to get to unless you are up for a partially-off road and very steep challenge which takes you across a small mountain pass which we did on our moped. Do not drive around if the rain is more than trickling or you will find yourself stuck in knee deep pools of run-off water with all sorts of fun little critters. This happened to us one night in a torrential downpour which started during dinner. On our way back to the hotel, our moped stalled and everything went pitch black causing us to wade through the tropical juice and backtrack to the restaurant for Plan B. Also make sure you have plenty of gas in your ride, especially if driving around at night, because you never know when you will accidently make a wrong turn and end up in the interior of the island, like us.

Location:

Koh Pha Ngan is only accesible by ferry or private boat so from Surat Thani we took a two and a half hour ferry ride east. The island itself is located on the East side of Thailand, close to Ko Samui (tourist hotspot) and Ko Tao (good for diving) islands. Although KPN is known for the Full, Half, and Black Moon Parties, the non party sides (anwhere other than from Haad Rin Beach to Thongsala) of the island are still somewhat harder to reach and less tourists go there. Funny enough, the party reputation keeps the families and resort lovers away, leaving the entire island with a new-age vibe.

Hotels:

We first stayed at Kho Pha Ngan (KPN) Beach Resort located on Ban Tai Beach about 10 minutes from the Thongsala Beach Pier. It is a smaller resort with a beachfront location and rooms with a garden or sea view. Since we were booked for only 4 nights, splashing out on the “best” room they offered, a deluxe beachfront bungalow, sounded like a good idea and treat for us so we wouldn’t have to go far to chill out on the beach.  We woke up every morning to a wicked view of the sea just steps away from our front porch. The water itself was not worth swimming around in as the seasonal tides had left most of the beach with murky, stagnant, & shallow water, and you had to go quite far out to find any depth or currents. The water was fine for jumping in for a quick dip, maybe knee deep. Either of the owners of the hotel, British Andy or his Russian wife, were usually present on site. Andy was great for providing information and she was a loud, money-hungry drunk, who always made her presence known.  There are signs everywhere on how guests should behave and how we would be fined if we break the rules – an unclassy measure by our standards. Accessibilty to food and Haad Rin (AKA Full Moon Party) Beach was pretty good, and there were few lady boy bars within a 10- 15 minute walking distance from our resort, none that we visited though!

After 4 nights on the more touristy and party-side of the island we decided to spend our remaining  5 nights of our vacation on the chill and more remote side of the island – Haad Salad Beach. We spent a morning driving our moped, scoping out our next potential hotel, on the Northwest side of the island, with our top priority being easy access to good swimming (we were burned by our tease of a beachfront bungalow without a beach to swim in). We dodged sinkholes and huge cracks in the road and traversed up and down very steep hills to find Salad Beach Resort. The resort is located on the beach, with a pool (YAY), very decent restaurant, and beautiful garden situated throughout most of the property. The resort is one of the first here and is run by locals. The manager, Patrick, and his staff bring a family-run atmosphere which made the resort an enjoyable stay for us. Jyoti also was lucky enough to enjoy an afternoon of free Watsu (Water Shiatsu) by acting as a guinea pig for an English instructor. Good stuff!

Weather:

We arrived there in late April, which is the HOTTEST month. Although we experienced some afternoon showers and a heavy rain one night, the rainy season doesn’t officially start until Mid-May. However, when it rains, it pours. We heard stories of heavy rains lasting a month straight and saw evidence of the aftermath in the form of mudslides, washed out roads, and bungalows swept off their foundations. December and January are the coolest months and also the peak season for tourism.

Food:

As vegetarians, food was surprisingly better  and easier to find here than on Phuket Island. There is definitely a yoga loving hippy vibe to the island which translates to an understanding of healthy food with many vegetarian options. As you may have guessed, most of these types of establishments are mostly owned by foreigners, predominantly Europeans and with some Aussies and South Africans mixed in. We found several places which we would recommend to others: Fabio’s, Fellini’s, Om Ganesh, Namaste Restaurant and Calcutta Bar, Karma, and Ananda’s. We also recommend casual street dining at the super cheap and yummy Thongsala Street Market. KPN is home to a great variety of foods such as Italian, American, Mediterranean, Indian, as well as fresh fruit juices like watermelon, coconut, mango, popaya, carrot, and more!

Best Beaches:

The beaches on the southeast and northeast part of the island are the best. Haad Rin Beach is the beach located on the SW tip of the island and is the site of the infamous Full Moon Party. It is overpopulated and lined with hotels and bars, not to mention the whole beach is littered with waste, which saddened us – beautiful beach though.
One of the best beaches, which is also one of the hardest to reach, is Thong Nai Pan Yai. It is located on the NE side of the islan, just south of Thong Nai Pan Noi. The only paved road to here is being built but its still has a ways to go before seeing completion. Most travellers take a boat to get here, and if you are staying at a resort located here, then they will handle the transfer and bring you via boat taxi. This area has an uber chill vibe and it is the place to be to if you want to get away from the partiers. A handful of large resorts are buying up all the land along the east coast so this side will soon too be ridden with resort bungalows and pools. It was like a beachside ghost town when we visited.

Although we didn’t make it there, the locals told us that Bottle Beach is also one of the most beautiful on the island – only way to get there is via a longer hike or a private boat taxi.

Natural Beauty and Wildlife:

The wildlife here is rich and full of life. We could always hear the wildlife buzzing from outside our door and we even had lizards, spiders, and mosquitos in our room most of the time. There are many resident snakes including cobras, which in one restaurant owner’s case had found a home under the steps leading to their property. Elephants were brought to the island some years back and now there is an elephant and cobra shows where a crazed man pokes and prods at cobras in a show of utter stupidity. We never went but saw a video recap on the camera of a Canadian tourist. 

The interior is like Jurassic Park – pitch black at night and always buzzing with loud insects and creatures… almost sounds like a freight-train is passing through.

Sealife and underwater adventures in Thailand are said to be some of the best in the world. We got a chance to go snorkelling off one of the islands comprising Ang Thong National Park where we were able to see coral and swim with various schools of fish.
KPN is also a great place to obtain a PADI scuba certification quickly and cheap – if you are after the certificate and not so worried about quality of instruction, this is your place.

Party Reputation:

As mentioned, Ko Pha Ngan is known globally for the Full-Moon Party. Its also one of the less developed islands in Thailand, which still allowed us to appreciate the island life along with the locals. Unless you’re looking for a world famous party, don’t plan on being on KPN and especially Haad Rin Beach during the Full Moon Party which brings the luminescent paint covered party crowd by the droves. We were here in the off-season but we did manage to catch the Black Moon party, which along with the twice monthy half-moon parties, fill the time between the full-moons. It was alright, lots of psy-trance with a sprinkling of techno and not too many people. Mac’s Bay Resort is where you will find the Black Moon Parties unless politics and upcoming elections force the organizers to change the venue . This happens every couple of years and represents the struggle between the money that these often drug-using partiers bring to the island through tourism and Thai political agendas which are heavily anti-drugs. It lasts for about a month before everything returns back to normal. In spite of this, we sense that the Full Moon Parties have probably experienced their peak and now that tourism and money-hungry promoters have taken over, the free love driving force is dying and the seedy underbelly of the operation beginning to be exposed.

Despite this, unlike Phuket or Ko Samui, you will be able to unwind and enjoy nature; it’s one of the less developed Thai Islands. Head for the NW or NE parts of the island where its harder to get to – you will find peace and tranquility here, and very little pollution and noise. Here, you will find local bartenders sleeping in hammocks on the beach, and you’ll hear lounge or island music as you sip on your beverage of choice while lazing in the sun.

Infrastructure:

Buildings are quite basic in terms of amenities and construction materials used. Many of the restaurants are indoor/outdoor and local timber and bamboo is used for the frame and roof. Many foreigners set up small businesses like restaurant/cafes and souvenir shops, mainly because initial investment can be less expensive than exotic islands in the western world. Resorts range from extremely basic to luxurious despite their titles so do your research. Get used to bugs and reptiles in your room. The septic and sewer systems are a not the best but comparitively speaking, better than other some Asian countries. The heavy rains constantly wash out the especially steep roads so you need to give the road your undivided attention or a sink hole in the middle of the street might swallow you up.

Ang Thong Trip:

On our lat full day, we booked an awesome all day boat trip to see the Angthong Marine Park. There are 42 islands, most of which are uninhabitable. The sealife is abundant and the waves are huge. We took a 3 engine boat full of 30-40 people, toured around the islands, and snorkelled for a bit before making our way to Tale Nai to catch breathtaking views of the other islands. Finally, we made our way to the national park headquarters on Wua Talap Island where we ate lunch and were free to bath in the water, take kayak tours, or go on a hike. The day ended with us heading back to Thongsala pier in heavy rains. Being chased by the monsoon is a theme that continued on into India. Stay tuned!

Phuket

Trip Facts:

Phuket is the largest island in Thailand. Situated on the West Andaman Coast, it is one of the most naturally beautiful places the country has to offer. What we found was a spectacular island with some beautiful coastline including white sand beaches, rocky outcroppings and outlying islands, and a mountainous interior. Sadly, we also found a place that continues to be overdeveloped, overrun, and polluted with vehicles and trash. We still loved it for the remnants of famous Thai hospitality and appreciated the natural wonder that remains there. Our 5 nights there started out with a recovery from a tummy bug that unfortunately made it hard for us to eat whatever we wanted (except coconuts!) and kept Tushar in bed for 24 hours with a high fever, but the R&R of beach time helped and we felt well enough to make a great comeback to full health and spicy Thai food.

Our hotel was the cheapest one so far – and fit the bill well. At 700 Baht(about $20) per night, it was a steal. We had a balcony, large fridge, and rooftop pool. It was about a 15 minute walk to the beach, which I only did one time before we got wheels.

Mopeds:

Mopeds are overywhere in Thailand – they are a cheap and quick way to get around. At only 200 Baht (about $6) per day to rent, it beats out trying to get taxis and is WAY more fun too. Just beware, after a couple weeks of it, your butt will hurt – if its not well padded! You are also more exposed to the wrath of Mother Nature (she’s pretty mad in Thailand sometimes) – more to come on this in our Koh Phangan post. If you visit, be sure to make note of or photograph any scratches prior to renting. As with most Asian countries, you need to constantly be aware of locals trying to make an extra buck off you. This is especially true in Phuket, where it seems the youth in particular, seem to resent tourists for taking advantage of the cheap travel and sadly (you see it quite often), the local women (more on this in the Bangkok post).

Kata Beach:

Kata beach is where our hotel was located. It is a medium sized beach town and the southernmost of three consecutive bays on the west coast of Phuket. It is more chill than nearby Patong, but large enough to offer a good range of shopping and dining options. The beach scene wasn’t crowded at all – but you could tell it does get busy in the high season (Dec-Jan) by all the beach loungers. We were there at the beginning of the low season – also known as the hot season – and the rainy season was right around the corner. We visited this beach and while swimming around, were bowled over by some large waves. I was quite surprised at this and then Tushar suggested we try to do some boogie boarding. I had never done it before but thought it was a fantastic idea so 15 minutes later we were paddling into the waves trying to wait for the big perfect wave to ride in. Well I guess I had some beginner’s luck and my patience paid off. I saw a large peak approaching – much larger than any of the others. I followed Tushars instructions to quickly turn around and paddle towards shore, building up enough speed to ride the wave in. All I have to say is WOW what a rush!! I must have done it all right that one time and the wave carried me in so fast. Seconds later, I was washed up on the sand with a massive smile on my face. It was incredible and I chased that rush for the rest of the afternoon but didn’t have the same luck or skill again. It made my day though! If waves are your thing, then the West Coast of Thailand is where you should head for in the region.

Kata is also home to a famous viewpoint – the scene graces many a postcard and you can see the three bays I mentioned earlier. We were there for the sunset and joined many other couples and youngsters there to do the same. It was a beautiful view – probably one of the best in the area.

There is also a large Buddha statue at the top of a hill in Kata that you can see from most of South Phuket – we didn’t make it there but could see the back of it from our balcony. We also saw it many times on the day we drove the moped in a large circle around the South side of the island.

Patong Beach:

Patong Beach is Phuket’s largest beach town and is filled to the brim with tourists, touts, and bars. Its one of those places that you either love or hate, depending on your style of vacationing. The beach is full of rows of loungers and jetskis, the beachfront road is jammed with Tuk Tuk drivers and aggressive sales people.Tuk Tuks are basically pickup trucks that have two opposing rows of seating in the bed that you access from the aft. They are a taxi alternative (similar to rickshaws in India) and the drivers constantly bug you into overpaying for a ride. North of Patong is home to some of the most scenic and least busy beaches on the island so we stopped by Patong for lunch on our way back from a gorgeous beach, Neam Singh. As usual, we were on the hunt for a relatively clean, veggie-friendly joint, but this proved difficult, so as much as we try to avoid the chains, we decided to settle for a Hard Rock Cafe lunch, popping both our Hard Rock cherries to satisfy our rumbling bellies! Once done, we were glad to leave Patong, only considering to return to check out their infamous nightlife, but failing to follow through because we were just not feeling it there.

Neam Singh Beach:

Neam Singh Beach is a tiny cove that you have to hike down a steep hill to get to. I found it after doing some googling for best beaches on the island. When we went, there were about 20 people there – mostly locals. We chatted to some kids that work at the lone restaurant on the beach and enjoyed some relaxing afternoon swimming. There was a local man charging for streetside parking before the hike down (we think he was a hustler) so we backtracked to a clearing and parked for free under a tree next to some local bikes. One of the things about traveling for 3 months is you learn real quick when people are trying to get money from you that you don’t owe them. Our guard is always up and rightfully so – especially in Asian countries where touts and scam artists are relentless. On the few occasions when we get good vibes from local people or sellers that don’t quote us inflated prices, we will gladly give them our business and not haggle hard – these are the people that we want to support. We’ll chat more about this in our Bangkok post.

Phuket Town & Cape Promthep:

One day we decided to drive to Phuket Town to scope out the scene and check out the bus station where we would be catching a ride to Koh Phangan from. On the whole, the town is polluted and probably good for shopping and catching a couple of small local attractions but it is mostly used as a transition point for tourists heading to other places or for local business people to acquire goods and resources. We didn’t stay for long but left after lunch to take a long leisurely drive back to Kata along the Southwest coast of Phuket. Cape Promthep is a rocky cape that extends off the corner of the island and offers spectacular views of Phuket and its outlying islands. The hike down to the cape is about an hour each way if you take your time and is well worth the effort. We enjoyed every second of it and snapped some great pictures in between watching crabs and waves breaking against the rocks. We unfortunately didn’t have water with us and were parched by the time we returned to the top. Each of us killed 2 coconuts – it was incredible and probably the most enjoyable coconut treat of many in our time in Thailand.

Mom Tri’s Kitchen Royale:

This restaurant is attached to the Villa Royale hotel. It has a prime beachfront location on Kata Noi beach (Yai means big, Noi means small) which is the smaller and nicer of two beaches in Kata. I read about this restaurant on Tripadvisor and without exaggaration, it was our best dining experience EVER!! The combination of food, ambiance, service, and views was incredible and blew us away. This place will always hold a special place in our heart because it was magical. We went there for lunch on our last day and were so blown away that we returned the same night for dinner. We spent time enjoying the property, snapping pictures and walking around. The prices are higher than most restaurants on the island, but still a steal if you look at what you are getting. It worked out to about $20 each for lunch and $25 for dinner. If you are on a super tight budget, you can go for happy hour 5-7pm daily just to check the place out and enjoy half price drinks. It would make a fantastic place for a celebration with some family and friends and we highly recommend visiting if you are ever in Phuket.