Jodhpur – Blue City

From the mysticism of Varanasi to the majesty of Rajasthan, our 2012 tour of India continued; although not before a night of luxury in Delhi, courtesy of Le Meridien hotel. Beyond our preferred price range it ticked the most important box of not being the Ajanta – source of previous Delhi nightmares – see Delhi: A Comedy of Errors. Everything was spotless; everything was new; and everything worked – from the ipod docking station to the ultra thick black-out curtains. Strange what floats your boat innit? Black-out curtains do it for me.

And I didn’t realise that trainspotting floated Sue’s boat but with a morning to kill in Delhi, she suggested the National Rail Museum, and an excellent idea it turned out to be. Lots of colonial-era steam engines replete with royal history, up to some metre-gauge diesel monsters, and a few other very odds and ends thrown in. I’ll go and stand at the end of Platform 3 at King’s Cross in me anorak now.

Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort, “the work of giants” according to Kipling

An hour-long flight from Delhi and we were in Jodhpur in the once-royal state of Rajasthan. And while we were quite happy to use international chains in Varanasi and Delhi, in Rajasthan the done thing is old palaces and mansions, havelis, that have been converted into hotels. Ratan Vilas, was built in 1920, by Maharaj Ratan Singhji of Raoti, a royal from Jodhpur and one of the finest horsemen and polo players of his time – or so their website said. Originally the family home it was turned into a hotel by the grandson and great-grandson of the Maharaja, although it also continues to be their family home as well. The rooms were spacious if a little spartan, and nicely decked out with period furniture and fabrics. Mind you, they could have been bought the day before in the market for all I’d know. As nice as it was, it had a melancholic feel – as if modern day India has robbed the once-royals of their greatness and they now have to trade off their history in order to survive.

We immediately jumped in an auto-rickshaw and headed rather aimlessly into the Old City to have a quick look around. And like most Indian cities, it’s bonkers. The Old City’s famous landmark, the clock tower, stands at the heart of it, drawing all towards it. And next to it, Sadar Market retains a traditional village bazaar feel; chaotic, colourful and crowded. Every available space is filled with mounds of fabrics, carpets, sarees, and various other handicrafts. It’s no place for a demophobe. But it is fun. One irrepressible fabric salesman insisted on repeatedly reciting his list of high profile customers, which seemed to consist solely of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Sadly his sales tactic fell on deaf ears as having lived in Hong Kong for aeons, and having no interest in home furnishings, I’d never even heard of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. But my man wouldn’t give up until my tolerance waned and I had to walk away. But he had made me laugh for while.

But Sadar market can be hard work, and we were happy to retreat to Ratan Vilas, and its highly recommended courtyard kitchen. Shame then that we were one of only two couples there.

Mehrangarh Fort

A close up of Mehrangarh Fort – built by giants with nimble fingers

The main attraction of Jodhpur – apart from voluminous riding pants, and yes, they genuinely do originate from here – is Mehrangarh Fort. And it’s no wonder it’s the main attraction as it truly is magnificent, looming large some 400 feet over the city. Rudyard Kipling apparently called it “the work of giants” and he can’t have been far wrong. As we wound our way closer and closer up the hill the size and scale of the buttresses just seemed to get bigger and bigger, its walls up to 120 feet high and 70 feet wide. And as the materials were chiselled from the same rock on which the fort stands, its intricate windows and arches merge seamlessly with its rock solid base.

Amongst the highlights are its seven imposing entrances, which include the famous Jai Pol (victory gate) and Fateh Pol. And within the fort are several brilliantly crafted and decorated palaces, including Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), Phool Mahal (Flower Palace), Sheesha Mahal (Mirror Palace), Sileh Khana and Daulat Khana. There’s an excellent audio tour available narrated by some Indian feller with a booming English public school accent – and, I imagine, a cracking moustache – telling tales of great battles and derring-do and the history of the royal court. It was fascinating stuff but it’s really the architecture of the place that made it so worthwhile, the sheer size and scale directly contrasted by the minute and intricate finishing. Kipling’s giants must have had nimble fingers.

And to cap it all the ramparts of the fort provide a breath-taking view of the famous old blue city.

For Jodhpur is indeed blue. We wandered down from the fort through the Old City, where many of the houses are painted a bright shade of indigo, apparently to keep the interiors cool and fend off mosquitoes – but if that is the case why isn’t all of South Asia painted blue? A more plausible explanation would appear to be that the blue coating on a house used to indicate that a Brahmin – the priests of the Indian caste system – lived there, although over time other people seemed to have joined in too. Maybe they’re all big fans of Birmingham City?

Jodhpur - Blue City

Mehrangarh Fort looms large over the Blue City

Whatever. Somewhere in amongst all those old blue buildings and narrow alleyways we found the most excellent thali, that most delicious platter of vegetables, curries, curds, sauces and breads. And yes, these thalis are vegetarian, so yes, I voluntarily ordered a vegetarian meal. And it was delicious.

Spend a few more hours wandering around the backstreets and markets of Jodhpur picking up a few scarves and trinkets along the way. Then it’s back to the hotel for a dinner we are almost tempted to skip until we find the hotel courtyard restaurant full and lively in sharp contrast to yesterday’s emptiness. Where the hell did everyone come from?

Now, where did I put those capacious riding pants?

Varanasi – A Matter of Life and Death

Two years previously as the ravages of food poisoning laid waste to our plumbing I questioned the will or wisdom of visiting India again. But two years later, with those memories far removed and with fresh resolve, we were back in the saddle. The pull of this enchanting country just too strong to resist.

Varanasi is invariably described as one of the holiest cities in India, being sacred to the devotees of not one, but three, religions; Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. It is a place where people come to die.

It is also invariably described as one of the oldest cities on earth, dating to the 11th century BC. But there was nothing holy or historical, nor even remotely interesting, about the Ramada Hotel in which we were staying. But it was an international chain, was spotlessly clean, well-equipped, had the right booking and would give us the required calm and respite from the insanity that is Varanasi.

And into which we immediately plunged. For while death may play an integral role in the spiritual life of Varanasi, like any other city in India it positively teems with life. And the celebrated ghats, stepped embankments of stone slabs that line the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions, are as rich in life as anywhere. Here, the world goes about its business – bathing, praying, doing the laundry, selling phone cards, offering boat rides, shooting the breeze, drinking chai.

Ganga Aarti

A young pandit performs the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat

And so we found ourselves at the most renowned of them all, and a place I never did get me tongue around, Dashashwamedh Ghat. From there we wandered rather aimlessly up and down the riverbank visiting various other ghats whose names and purpose were unknown then and unknown still, and watching the daily life of Varanasi unfold in front of the tourist glare.

Tired of walking we embarked on the obligatory boat trip to view the city from the river, which was quite magnificent as the ghats and their palaces tower nobly over the riverbank. More than one of those grand old buildings appeared to be joining in with the spirit of death as they too crumble and slide gradually into the holy Ganges – which is not quite so magnificent as it is rather, well, minging, being a repository for every kind of flotsam and jetsam – and of course, sewage – that you can imagine. It must take some degree of devotion to bathe in its water but there are certainly no shortage of devotees.

I had no plans on joining them though. The boat took us towards Manikarnika Ghat, where different religions’ attitudes to death are brought into stark contrast and which was a little disconcerting for our delicate Christian and Buddhist souls. Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi and Manikarnika Ghat is a burning ghat, where bodies are cremated in full view before their ashes are placed in the Ganges. The pollution in the water is compounded by the fact that holy men, pregnant women, lepers, suicides, children under 5 and people bitten by snakes, are not cremated but are floated free to decompose in the waters.

And I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to which of those exclusive groups they belonged to – although given the other options I’d hope for their sake they’d been bitten by a snake – but no sooner had the boat boy explained this to us than we saw a brightly wrapped body attached to a block of concrete being pushed from a boat to sleep with the fishes.

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat – open air cremations

Our boatman then decided that I should row while he took photos with our camera, which was amusing for a few minutes, but only a few minutes. Whether by design or by my poor rowing, we ended up heading towards the sandy bank on the less glamorous eastern side of the river to watch several families and tour groups take their devotional bathe without too much reverence and seemingly with a lot of fun. Shivering families posed happily for photos, men in their speedos, women in their sodden saris – it seemed more like a day at the seaside than a religious rite.

Back on the boat and we lit our wee candles, made a wish and floated them off down the river, adding more crap to the soup. Then it was back to Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the Ganga Aarti taking place, a devotional ritual in which a group of saffron-robed pandits use fire and incense sticks, and a lot of praying and chanting, to make an offering to Maa Ganga. It made for some fantastic photos but at 45 minutes long, it was about 40 minutes too long for me. I was hungry.

The dry throat and general sense of having been smoked in sandalwood and incense was soon quenched by an illicit Kingfisher beer and what else but a curry, on a rooftop overlooking the river. The fact that the Kingfisher was illicit, didn’t appear on the menu or on the bill, only made it all the sweeter.

The following morning our auto-rickshaw made an unscheduled stop when he was pulled over by a traffic policeman and given an on-the-spot fine for not having a permit to carry tourists. Whether the fine lined public coffers or police pockets is a moot point, but our rickshaw man wasn’t happy. I guess the fine of 300 rupees could have wiped out the day’s earnings – but that also serves him right for not having the right permit. Karma, correct?


The celebrated ghats of Varanasi – the heart and soul of the city

The ghats are not merely steps down to the water but, according to Wikipedia, are an integral complement to the Hindu concept of divinity represented in physical, metaphysical, and supernatural elements. Varanasi has eighty four of them, most of which are used for bathing by pilgrims and the spiritually significant Hindu puja ceremony, while a few are used exclusively as Hindu cremation sites. One of which is Harischandra Ghat, where the auto-rickshaw driver eventually deposited us, and which we quickly sidestepped. Immediately behind Harischandra Ghat is a labyrinth of streets and alleyways, too narrow for traffic, but choc-full of life – and a delight to get lost in for an hour or two.

But there is no escape. For if India is a place where the things that most westerners do behind closed doors very often take place in the full glare of an impervious public, nowhere does that exist more than in a place where cremation itself is a public spectacle. As we searched for the much-advertised but not-easily-found German bakery, we emerged lost from an alleyway into the middle of Manikarnika Ghat just as a funeral procession pushed past complete with a brightly wrapped body held aloft on the shoulders of bearers. It was not unlike a Christian burial – just without the coffin. We had no choice but to push through, past three funeral pyres. And while Sue may have been able to avert her eyes, I just could not help it, and saw three clearly identifiable half-burned bodies half way to Hindu heaven.

It’s ghoulish and grisly but if the Hindu’s want to cremate their bodies in public that’s their business. Whether it is distasteful or disrespectful for tourists, including myself, to have a curious peek is another matter. On the other hand of those perfectly balanced Libran scales, a better understanding and appreciation of different cultures and religions has to be a good thing. The world needs more Librans.

When we did finally find the German bakery we found not one, but two, directly opposite one another, both claiming to be the ‘original’ German bakery and both supporting the local charity which apparently validated their authenticity. I guess the charity benefits both ways. But we never quite found out what the fascination with German bakeries was. They seemed to be all over the place in Varanasi as if the words ‘German bakery’ are a guarantee of high quality, western-standard breads and pastries. A French bakery I could understand. Or Danish. But German? Some wandering Herr must have opened his bakery years ago, called it ‘German’ cos he did indeed wear lederhosen, made a success of it and bingo, ‘German’ becomes synonymous with bread in more ways than one.

Bathing in the Ganges

A playful bathe in Mother Ganges

And that as they say, was that. After one more evening meal of delicious Nepalese momos, deep fried eggplant, naans and raita, and one more night in our American hotel, we managed to depart the wonderfully historic, mystical and atmospheric Varanasi in a way so many Hindus chose not to; alive.

Amritsar – A Land Of Giants

In the far north-west of India, just 28 km from the border with Pakistan, is the Punjabi city of Amritsar. It is home of the Harmandir Sahib, otherwise known as the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural centre for the Sikh religion, and which apparently attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.

It is a six hour train journey from Delhi, six hours which passed remarkably quickly, but didn’t quite live up to expectations. There was no sign of anyone sitting on the roof, or swarms of people hanging on to the sides, or food vendors climbing through windows. There were no spectacular views, no moody, contemplative moments, and no prize-winning photo opportunities. It was all a bit like travelling on what was once British Rail except that the train was even more decrepit. On the one occasion I did step off at a station to take a photo I was hastily shoo’ed back on again by one of India’s army of unsmiling officialdom.

There were no dramas at the hotel, and as it was only a few yards away, we were outside the Golden Temple within an hour of arriving in the city. As we stood there looking bewildered about procedures and etiquette, some large, swarthy and quite frankly frightening Sikh bloke marched over, and in a broad Mancunian accent explained the protocol for removing shoes and covering heads to offer the appropriate respect. He looked big and scary, and was politeness personified.

And good Lord, his temple is magnificent. A large square complex of gleaming white palatial Persian-inspired buildings and a wide marble walkway, bordering a similarly large and similarly square man-made lake, and majestically alone there in the middle at the end of a mini causeway, is the most golden of golden temples, radiating grandeur as it glimmered in the afternoon sun. The lower level is an elegant white marble, above which rises a shimmering second level, encased in intricately engraved gold panels, and topped by a gilded golden dome. It is simply stunning.

Golden Temple

The most golden of Golden Temples

In the inner sanctum priests and musicians keep up a continuous chant from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), which is piped out around the complex over their Bose loudspeakers, and which adds to the atmosphere of sanctity. It is possible to access the inner sanctum for a few precious moments, although we opted out as the queue was just a few thousand pilgrims too long. The gurus who initiated the temple decreed that the lake, the tank of nectar, the Sarovar, should be God’s home, and whoever bathed in it shall obtain all spiritual and temporal advantages. And so we watched as numerous Sikhs strip down to their undergarments and take a devotional bathe from the purpose-built, steps, or ghats.

And everyone is welcome at the Harmandir Sahib whether they’re Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, or anything else. The four entrances to the temple complex are apparently indicative of the inclusive nature of the Sikh religion. The temple is home to the largest free kitchen in the world, serving some 3,000 vegetarian meals a day, although for some reason, we didn’t partake, despite my usual predilection to take advantage of free food under any and all circumstances.

Mind you, the Sikhs themselves don’t look quite so welcoming. It must be something in the water but most of them are huge. Bearded. Turbaned. And huge. The guards at the temple carry an assortment of medieval weaponry while even on the streets they openly display their traditional daggers. They look fearsome, noble, warrior-like; although for some reason I couldn’t shake from my mind the image of Bernard Bresslaw in Carry on Up the Khyber – with real menace of course. The whole experience was so enchanting that what was supposed to have been a little taster prior to a lengthier visit the following day turned into an entire afternoon, and we were still happy to visit again the next day.

Golden Temple

A large Sikh guarding his Golden Temple

The history of the Golden Temple is not all serene however. In 1984, in Operation Blue Star, Indian troops, under the orders of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, stormed part of the complex in an attack on Sikh militants. Official reports put the number of deaths among the Indian army at 83, with 493 civilians and Sikh militants killed. Operation Blue Star was included in the Top 10 Political Disgraces by India Today magazine (an odd Top Ten if ever there was one). Four months after the operation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

But nowhere is Amritsar’s grisly place in history more pronounced than at Jallianwala Bagh, a public park just a short walk from the Golden Temple, where on April 13, 1919, 90 British Indian Army soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women and children. The firing lasted for ten to fifteen minutes, until the soldiers ran out of ammunition. Official British Raj sources conservatively placed the fatalities at 379, with 1,100 wounded. The scene features large in Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi, where the violence of the British sits in stark contrast to the peaceful-by-all-means protest of India’s most famous son.

The park is now a memorial to those who died, with a museum, a martyrs gallery, a martyrs well into which people leapt to flee the bullets and from which 120 bodies were retrieved, several sites showing bullet holes in walls, and a memorial. It’s a moving tribute to a shameful episode in British colonial history, which, being British, made me feel a little guilty and something of an interloper. Mind you, they’d have done better to preserve the sanctity of those who perished had they opted not to make the memorial decidedly phallic. It brings a smirk to the face of those of an immature disposition such as one’s self.

Jallianwala Bagh

The memorial at Jallianwala Bagh; a shameful episode but something about it still made me titter

Amritsar sits just 28km from the border with Pakistan, but there can be few border posts aroun the world which have become such a tourist attraction. So we hired ourselves a driver, Rohit, as dodgy as dodgy can be, and headed off to Wagah. Every evening there is a retreat ceremony called the ‘lowering of the flags’, during which troops of the India Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers perform ceremonial bandstanding and patriotic posturing before border gates are opened, flags are lowered with diplomatic equanimity, and the border gates are closed again for the evening. Comparisons with Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks are inevitable, and I shan’t be the first or last person to draw such parallels. High kicking (and groin pulling), high-speed marching and serious foot-stomping are all part of the ritual, coupled with full traditional military regalia and fanfare. All very impressive, if a little ridiculous.

But the Indian and Pakistan authorities have then contrived to turn the whole she-bang into a circus. There are grandstands set-up on either side, and various forms of entertainment made available for the huge crowds who turn up to celebrate their patriotism. We were treated to a wild-eyed young girl doing some frighteningly energetic traditional dancing, a Tibetan-looking choral troupe being drowned out by the Pakistani’s superior sound system, a bunch of traditionally-dressed ladies performing a traditionally-crap song-and-dance routine, and the crème-de-la-crap, a pub-band doing Judas Priest covers. Living After Midnight. At the historic India-Pakistan border. I kid you not.

An Indian MC with an enormously inflated sense of self importance indulged in a tug-of-war with the soldiers on crowd control duty, as he whipped the crowd into nationalistic fervour while the soldiers ensured they remained firmly seated. And then the moustache-twitching and face-pulling began. Think the Changing of the Guard stage managed by DisneyWorld. Speaking of Monty Python, Michael Palin gave the whole thing a far better critique in his Himalaya series, which had served to pique our interest in the first place. With hindsight, the circus overwhelmed the ceremony, and a trip to India would be no worse for not having experienced it.

Back in Amritsar, and we took a stroll around the streets of the old town which, similar to Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, are fascinatingly beautiful for their decrepitude. There must have been some magnificent structures back in the day – or maybe it’s only their decay which makes them interesting. Sadly now, along with so much of India, they’re knackered. One particular building resembled a bomb-site, entire walls having collapsed to reveal hearths and mantelpieces, peeling wallpaper and kitchen cupboards.

Collapsed buildings Amritsar

Amritsar: A once grand city now falling apart

And after ten days in India I never did quite my head around that most important thing, the licensing laws; where and when I could get a beer, and where and when I could not. There seemed to be a severe lack of pubs, most shops and restaurants didn’t have liquor licenses, bottle shops were few and far between (and best avoided) and hotel mini-bars were dry. All of which is a far cry from the likes of Thailand and the Philippines where anyone and everyone will happily sell you a Singha or a San Miguel at the drop of a note. Dinner at the Crystal Restaurant in Amritsar, described by the Lonely Planet as ‘Amritsar’s classiest restaurant’, saw a surreptitious and deliciously illicit beer, conveyed by whisper, delivered wrapped in napkin, with the whispered instruction not to remove said napkin.

But, beer or no beer, nothing in Amritsar could detract from the beauty of that Golden Temple, and the inclusiveness it represents. Perhaps the world could do with a little of that these days.

Agra and the Taj Mahal

After the challenges of finding a suitable bed in the capital it was a relief to get out of Delhi for a while. Especially when the trip to Agra involved an icon of travel, the Indian rail network. And so we found ourselves shivering on a pre-dawn platform awaiting the 6.20am Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Agra and beyond. Don’t ask me why, but Indian Railways still print out a passenger manifest and post it on the platform prior to departure. Mind you, given that we’d booked our tickets online, via an intermediary, and held no ticket per se, it was actually a relief to find our names and know that our booking was valid.

Two hours later, after a wholly unremarkable train ride, we were there, Agra, site of the world famous Taj Mahal. Most descriptions of Agra from those in the know were not pleasant and invariably involved expletives. The consensus appeared to be to do it as a day trip, get in, and get out again. But not us. We’re always keen to see things in all their glory, or lack thereof, and were staying for a whole night. No half measures there then eh?

And it was a relief to discover that the hotel in which we would spend that one night, the Howard Park Plaza, offered no nasty surprises whatsoever; although having apparently booked for only one person – an easy mistake to make in the world of drop-down menus – we did have to pay a second-person supplement. But the room was normal, the bed a double, the water hot, the fridge cold, and everything, well, worked.

And then we were immediately off to the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum built between 1632 and 1653 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite (?!) wife, Mumtaz Mahal. And it is truly impressive in so many ways, not least of which was the sheer number of people who turned up to see it on the same day that we did. They might have closed it for Princess Diana to have the picture which came to symbolise her estrangement from Charles, but not for us. It was bloody mobbed.

Taj Mahal

The perfection of symmetry

Not least by the locals, which is not surprising given that Indians pay 10 rupees (10p or HK$1) to get in, compared to the 500 rupees (£6 or HK$60) foreigners pay – which is still of course a bargain. The approach takes in the main gateway (the darwaza) – which is a monumental structure in itself – before you’re rewarded with a first glimpse of the sparkling Taj Mahal tomb. And it genuinely does take your breath away. Whether it’s the gleaming whiteness, the history, the reputation, or the love and devotion on which it was built, I don’t know, but it is utterly, genuinely, gobsmackingly, beguiling.

And it’s not just the familiar onion-domed marble mausoleum with its intricate external and internal decoration. There are the perfectly symmetrical gardens which draw the eye to the mausoleum and provide depth and perspective. The three-dimensional effect created by the four minarets. The aforementioned gateway at the opposite end of the gardens. The smaller tombs to his other wives; Mumtaz merely having been the ‘favourite’. The symmetry is everywhere, even down to the building’s mirror image in the reflecting pool. To the right of main building stands the mosque (the masjid), and opposite, perhaps my favourite, the jawab, the mosque’s ‘answer’, whose primary purpose is architectural balance. An entire structure, generously proportioned in it’s own right, erected simply for symmetry, for balance, the ‘answer’. (And although I claim not to believe in such things, that probably sits well on my Libran scales.)

You could spend days, even years, studying this place, and I’m sure some do, but after spending a couple of hours marvelling at Mumtaz’ mausoleum, we located our driver and headed off to Agra Fort. Apparently the most important fort in India, it’s a large, sprawling, red sandstone complex dating from 1573. And while there are a few notable buildings within, the most striking aspect is simply the deep red colour, and the varying shades it produces in different lights at different times of day. Not to mention a discreet view of the omnipresent Taj Mahal framed in a window.

Red Fort Agra

The reddest of red forts

A drive through the city revealed that yes, Agra is not the finest city on earth, but nor is it without its charm, and there is more to it than the one monument. The tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, also know as the Baby Taj, is not surprisingly, much smaller than the Taj, built before the Taj, and apparently regarded as a draft for the Taj. A wee experiment before they went for the Big One. Which may or may not be true, but what is true is that it is considerably quieter than the Taj Mahal, and as a consequence a lot more peaceful and serene. Baby or not, it’s a lot easier to become contemplative about life, the universe and everything when there aren’t hordes of tourists pushing and shoving their way in front of you.

After a final look at the backside of the inescapable Taj from the opposite side of the Yamuna River we were done for the day, and headed back to the delight of a hot shower to wash away the grime of the city.

For a second day in Agra, we’d secured the services of the same two drivers, so duly checked out of the hotel and waited outside for them. And waited. And waited. And eventually accepted that they were never going to turn up. They must have got a better offer, or got so lashed up on the dosh we’d overpaid them yesterday they couldn’t get out of bed. Bastards.

But there are always alternatives so we negotiated a new deal with a driver hanging around outside the hotel; 1,100 rupees to take us to Fatehpur Sikri and back, and then wherever else we wanted to go in Agra. And best of all the guy was driving an HM Ambassador, “The king of Indian roads”; a car originally based on the Morris Oxford III, which has been in production since 1958, and has barely had any modifications since. Apparently it is the most popular car in India and is the choice of India’s political leadership, police and other government officials. Lord knows why as it looks and feels like a dinosaur – which of course made it all the more entertaining for it.

And the driver himself turned out to be a canny feller. While we were a little mistrustful given that we just picked him and his cab up off the street – or vice versa – he’d a quick smile and a cracking laugh.

The ride out to Fatehpur Sikri, about 30kms out of Agra, saw us spend about an hour stuck in slow moving traffic down tightly congested market streets, packed with traders and shoppers, beggars and bystanders, and with the world and his auntie just inches from the windows. It could have been hellish but was actually fascinating and afforded an opportunity to observe and photograph some genuine Indian street life – and of course to shove a camera in people’s faces with relative discretion.

There’s also a 500 rupee fee to get into Fatehpur Sikri and although all the websites said that the Taj Mahal ticket covered this as well under the banner of the Archaeological Survey of India, I have a feeling I paid again; although we did notice that the ‘local’ entry fee includes citizens of SAARC, including Thailand, and Sue therefore counted as a local, and got in for 10 rupees. I’m not sure how thrilled she was at the idea of being considered to be anything other than Thai, but I was happy to compromise her identity to save a few bucks.

Fatehpur Sikri is, or was, an ancient city constructed by the Mughal emperor Akbar, beginning in 1570 and serving as the empire’s capital from 1571 until 1585, with a population of some 30,000. And though it took fifteen years to build, it was abandoned after only fourteen years because the water supply was unable to sustain the growing population. Now I’m no architect, engineer, developer or urban planner, but doesn’t that seem a little short-sighted? These dudes were capable of engineering marvels such as the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri itself, and they didn’t spot the absence of any water?

Modest in depth but not in height – the main gateway of the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri

The site itself is now a ghost town, although it is missing any air of ghostliness. While the temples of Angkor maintain a thrilling sense of mystery through their dishevelment, Fatehpur Sikri seemed a little too clean. It’s as if Wimpey built a nice new housing estate on the edge of Milton Keynes last year, but then walked away once it was done. That said, the immaculate preservation does give it a unique perspective and affords a clear insight into what life in the city and the society must have been like. The mosque, Jama Masjid, and the main gateway, Buland Darwaza, are quite awe-inspiring. The gateway, substantial in height yet modest in depth, appears eerily one-dimensional. While the courtyard (if that is the correct term) is immense, designed, one assumes, to house the entire 30,000-odd population.

Then it was back to the Ambassador, back to Agra, and back to the station for the 8pm Shatabdi back to Delhi – a journey unamusing save for the sheer impunity with which the feller on the opposite aisle openly burped and farted his way from Agra to Delhi without so much as an admonishing glance from his dear – and presumably – long-suffering wife. Perhaps one day she’ll have her own onion-domed tribute to her patience and devotion.

Delhi: A Comedy of Errors

Until February 2010 I’d never been to India. Telling people we were going there on holiday elicited three responses. That it could be a bit of a dump. That we’d get sick. And that the accommodation was terrible. And they were right on all counts. But they forgot to mention that the monuments are magnificent, the food fantastic, the people curious and friendly, and the whole experience worth the hardships. Maybe.

We arrived in Delhi at 2am aboard an evening flight from Hong Kong to Delhi, to find that the hotel pick-up had not materialised. Some guy from the hotel was there, but his placard didn’t bear our names, and he’d never heard of us. But in true Asian style he wasn’t about to let a detail like that get in the way of a bit of business, and promptly decided that the name on the card was ours after all, and off we went. Not an auspicious start, and I’ve no idea what happened to the poor feller whose name actually was on the card…

…but that was nothing compared to what was to come. We arrived at the Ajanta Hotel in Paharganj to find that…they didn’t have a room. And this is despite the fact that I phoned yesterday to reconfirm both the room and the airport pick-up. Obviously there is a limit to what they can do…if they don’t have a room, they don’t have a room, but that kind of logic didn’t necessarily enter my mind at 3am in the morning in a strange city. Whatever it took, they’d better bloody find one.

Option 1, a room in Hotel Sita just round the corner, was promptly rejected upon inspection of a room that can best be described as squalid. Option 2 was to hang on until 4.30am whereupon somebody was scheduled to check out, although by that time it was already 4.30am and there was no sign of anyone leaving. Option 3 was a room in their ‘new’ wing, Hotel Sweet Home, just over the road. Their definition of ‘new’ was clearly different to mine, as was their definition of ‘hot’ water, but by now it was 5am, so despite our reluctance we accepted this as the best option and bedded down for little of what was left of the night.

So our first day in India began with a series of arguments/negotiations with one of the many managers of the hotel as to why no room was available, when we could move into the room we had booked and paid for, and what the hotel was prepared to do to make up for this. There were various offers bandied about ranging from no charge for last night, to a free breakfast, to a free tour of the city – I suspected he’d throw in his wife and kids if we kept going. The consensus of which was to put the whole thing to one side, go out and enjoy the day, and sort it all out later.


Traffic chaos near Paharganj

So a complimentary auto-rickshaw took us to the Red Fort, Delhi’s number one tourist attraction, which was…closed. No one seemed to know why – it wasn’t a public holiday, there were no known renovations going on – but it was very definitely not open. So we continued on to Connaught Place, the all-singing all-dancing centre of New Delhi, which appeared to be an all-banging all-drilling building site. Although still open it was apparently being done up in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in October. I thought it’d be an impressive sight once it was all cleaned up, but it would also be an impressive feat if they got it done in time.

It must by now have been lunch-time so we chowed down on some excellent dosas, cholley batchure and parathas, in a fast-food place called Haldiram’s, which seemed pretty edgy to us at the time but we expected would turn out to be the McDonalds of India. Either way, it’d prove to be a safe haven for us on more than one occasion.

And then someone threw shit on me shoe. Literally. Shit on me shoe. The sacred Lonely Planet had warned about this – one dodgy geezer deposits some shit on your shoe and another ‘helpfully’ offers to clean it off for 50 rupees. Incensed at potentially being scammed, I resolved to clean it off myself, but might have been better off accepting the scam and putting it down to experience. It was stubborn stuff to say the least.

The guidebook determined that it was feasible to walk back to the Ajanta Hotel, taking us past the train station and past what we later discovered to be one of the main bazaars. Whilst we hesitated to enter – it was getting dark, it was a narrow side-street, and we were India novices after all – the whole surrounding area was busy, vibrant, a little scuzzy, and provided no shortage of photographs. Back at the Hotel Ajanta we’re shown to the right room – which in truth wasn’t much better than Hotel Sweet Home, still had no effing hot water, and was rather noisy to say the least. Dinner in the hotel restaurant redeemed it to a small extent as the food was pretty damned good, but then it was early to bed in preparation for an early start for a trip to Agra.

After a night or two in Agra, we were back in Delhi. And then the fun started again. Having accepted the various apologies, compensation and guarantees of the Ajanta Hotel management, we’d booked in for another two nights, and guess what…we arrived to find…no room available. What?! How…?! Why…?! (What might have been a more appropriate question is why we chose to return there.) Apoplectic barely describes my frustration and anger with the so-called manager.

Another couple in the same predicament accepted a sub-standard room for the night with the promise of moving to another room tomorrow. But the room we were offered was unacceptable – more like a prison cell than a hotel room. After an hour or so of totally fruitless arguing, reasoning and hypothetical hair-tearing, we ended up back in the same room in Hotel Sweet Home as we were two days ago. Given that my travel partner had suggested giving up on the money and not coming back to Ajanta at all, I slipped off to bed with my tail between my legs. At least the hot water was working.

It seemed that the hotel’s business model – if indeed they had one – was to accept any and all bookings in the expectation that some people wouldn’t turn up, and in a backpacker world they may have had their fingers burnt from time to time. But to consciously overbook, and accept the subsequent loss of future business from pissed-off customers, seems short-sighted, not to mention downright masochistic. Either that or they are just sheer bloody incompetent.

Delhi public toilet

A very public toilet

In the morning we reconfirmed the hotel booking that we’d made last night at another hotel, cancelled the remaining night’s reservation at Ajanta, and got the hell out of there. At the end of the day, we paid for two nights, stayed three, got a 1,400 rupee refund, and a free taxi to the new hotel. But it still didn’t make up for all the grief. We’d still rather have paid the right money, for the right room, and had a hassle-free stay.

But while we may have got away from the Ajanta Hotel, we couldn’t escape the comedy. Hotel Oskar was selected on the grounds that the rooms appeared nice and clean and according to was only 1.3 km from the city centre. Quite which city centre I’m not sure as it is actually in Hauz Khas – some 13 km from what I and the rest of Delhi would consider to be the city centre.

She looked at the room, said it was fine, and cheerfully moved in. The room and the bedding was immaculately clean, but given that it was rather small and had no windows, I suspect that she was just putting a brave face on it and trying to remain cheerful – which was more for my benefit than hers, as I was the one who had wigged out most over these hotel fiascos.

Putting hotel room farces behind us, we hopped in an auto-rickshaw to Janpath for just 60 rupees – finally getting the hang of auto costs – and had a browse round the main Janpath drag and the Tibetan market; which were all very colourful and interesting, not least the dude who was dressed up as some monkey-king complete with red face and tail, and goes about begging cash from stall-holders – and posing for photos with balding middle-aged tourists – presumably in return for some good luck blessing.

We then walked, rather inevitably, to Connaught Place for some lunch in Haldiram’s, before heading over to the Jama Masjid – the largest and best-known mosque in India, completed in 1656 and the work of the same feller who built the Taj Mahal, the Shah Jahan. There’s a lively if somewhat downtrodden market leading up to the mosque – a source of numerous photos and no little discomfort. We’d been concerned that at some stage India’s poverty would get to us, and the plight of some poor young feller horribly disfigured by elephantiasis and some old down-and-out, who had clearly soiled himself, being given a thwack of the lathi by a policeman, was almost too much.

After a brief wander round the rather disappointing Jama Masjid we sat for a while on the steps outside the main gate, with some old feller sitting not two yards away staring in that inoffensive and genuinely curious, yet still a little off-putting, Indian way. We were then joined by a young Afghan who wanted to have his photo taken with us, and then several of his mates, and then several other folk who just seemed curious in what was going on. It ended up with me being surrounded by two dozen fellers, none of whom I could speak to, and who all just sat looking or carrying on their own conversations. It was entertaining for a minute or two and then just plain disconcerting. Run away. Run away.

We walked past the Red Fort, but didn’t go in, perhaps because it looks the same as Agra Fort or perhaps because we were still piqued that it hadn’t been open when we’d wanted it to be, and headed instead to Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest markets in Old Delhi. It’s a long, congested, chaotic, melee of a market, notable for the decrepit state of many of the once grand buildings that line it’s fascinating length.

Chandni Chowk

Crumbling buildings along Chandhi Chowk

After another trip away from this city, this time to Amritsar, we found ourselves back in Delhi. This time we were booked in to the TJS Royale in the Karol Bagh area. And guess what…they had no rooms at the TJS Royale. But at least they were organised and we’d been moved into the TJS Grande instead, which is just around the corner and which we were assured is an exact replica of the Royale. We were beyond caring so meekly submitted to an inspection, which met standards, and duly checked-in.

With one day left to kill in Delhi we hit the bazaar in Paharganj – the one which we unwittingly missed on the very first day for the sake of crossing the road. And after an initial false start down the wrong street, it turned out to be well worth the effort and we subsequently spent about four hours walking up and down, back and forth, visiting and revisiting various stores, buying bags and scarves and bedcovers and exasperating no shortage of shopkeepers with attempts at bargaining.

India’s shopkeepers appear largely disinterested in bargaining and have a refreshing like-it-or-lump-it approach to selling. Go to a chemist and there are no attempts to sell you something else if they haven’t got what you want, or can’t understand what you want. In some parts of Asia, they’ll try to sell you anything. If they haven’t got cough medicine, they’ll try and sell you Preparation-H instead. Here it was monosyllabic and to-the-point. “Do you have Strepsils?” “No.” End of story. Haggling in Katra Jaimal Singh yielded absolutely nothing. “If I offer you a discount it means I didn’t give you my best price in the first place. This is my best price.” Haggling in Paharganj simply saw the shopkeeper roll his eyes in frustration as he asked himself what part of ‘that is my best price’ we failed to understand.

Paharganj alley

An alley in Paharganj Market

We then caught an auto down to India Gate, one final sight which we’d not yet taken in, and mightily impressive it is too, very tastefully lit as dusk sets in. Although a little like some other things in India, they could do with tidying it up a bit. The surrounding park looked like an empty fairground after the fair has moved on. Filthy and litter-strewn. Where’s your pride, oh people of India?

And then we were back home to Hong Kong after nine days in India without any lavatorial mishaps to promptly experience an explosion of Krakatoan proportions. I deteriorated gradually throughout the day until I was passing pure liquid throughout the night, and surrendered any optimistic hopes of going to work in the morning. It would be Wednesday before I was fit to return to work, by which time she was in a worse state than I was. The only consolation was that we were back home before getting sick – I can’t imagine having to face sickness of that severity and deal with the Indian medical system at the same time.

So that was our first trip to India. They said it was a dump. They said we’d get sick. They said the accommodation was terrible. And they were right on all counts. But up until Ghandi’s Revenge, I’d have gladly gone back; visited other parts of the country; marvelled at other monuments, wildlife and landscapes; experienced more of the chaos and curiosity; albeit with a second mortgage in hand to finance a top-end hotel and none of the shenanigans our attempt at economy had produced. But looking at the damage that final lunch-time meal in a questionable eatery in Paharganj – when we were probably getting a little over-confident in our ability to cope with Indian food – wrought upon our systems, I wasn’t so sure.

The Colours of Kyoto

With the cherry blossom in full bloom, the geisha in all their made-up glory, and the excess of vermilion at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, springtime in Kyoto is a blaze of glorious colours.

Kyoto riverside

A walk along the riverside Kyoto style

It’s a blaze of a different kind – speed – that gets us there. While Japan can at times be super-organised and super-efficient it can also be archaically bureaucratic and it takes a good while, and no shortage of paperwork, to activate our Japan Rail Passes. But there ends the tardiness as a Shinkansen bullet train, travelling at speeds in excess of 240 kilometres per hour, takes just two hours to whisk us the 500km from Tokyo to its anagram, Kyoto, complete with a crystal clear view of Mount Fuji’s perfectly-shaped snow-capped cone as we whoosh past.

Our first morning in Kyoto dawns wet and overcast, but not enough to dampen our commitment to exploring Kyoto’s temples and gardens – this is what the city is famous for after all. And nowhere seems to typify old Kyoto more than the Higashiyama district, skirting the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. Its narrow, winding, cobble-stoned and stepped streets are lined with traditional wooden shops, teahouses and restaurants. Such is the quest for traditionalism, and the innate cleanliness and order of the Japanese, that’s it’s hard to determine whether the streets are genuinely old and traditional, or a sanitised replica of what they may once have been.

But there are traditional Japanese restaurants, and we’re game to try everything Japanese food-wise, so why not give the vegetarian option a go? Indian vegetarian food is fantastic after all, so why not Japanese? Cos it’s bloody awful that’s way. Some miso soup (which is never my favourite), cold soba noodles, and tsukemono, an assortment of unidentifiable pickled vegetables. The only positive is that I’ve already eaten one sandwich this morning and have another secreted about my person. After giving it my best shot I’ll be happy never to see a pickle again unless it’s in a jar with a Branston’s label on it.

The Kiyomizudera temple complex is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan, oozing symbolism from every corner. The Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. Drinking from the three separate streams of the Otowa Waterfall confer longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. A visit to the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda is said to bring about an easy and safe childbirth. It’s an all-in-one love-and-life package. The Main Hall stands atop a huge veranda elevating it above the hillside, and it is a truly beautiful view of the picture-postcard bright-red pagoda set amongst the colourful maple and cherry trees.

Kiyomizudera temple

The gardens around the Kiyomizudera temple

A short walk down the Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka steps, takes us to the Kodai-ji Temple, notable primarily for its landscape architecture, featuring a pond, man-made hills and decorative rocks set amongst pine and maple trees; a rock garden consisting of a large field of immaculately raked gravel meant to represent the vast ocean; and a tranquil bamboo grove. It’s all very zen. Next stop is Maruyama Park – obviously not a temple – with its cherry trees in full bloom, and Chion-in Temple, with its spectacularly colossal main gate and its equally impressive stairway leading up to the main buildings.

After which, sacrilege to say, I think we’ve just about had enough of temples, and head over to Gion, an entertainment area squeezed between the river and Higashiyama and where one may apparently catch a glimpse of a geisha. Take a stroll down Hanami-koji, lined with preserved traditional machiya houses, now turned into restaurants and teahouses (ochaya), the most exclusive and expensive of Kyoto’s dining establishments, where guests are entertained by apprentice geisha (that famous double act, maiko and geiko). This is Kyoto’s high-end dining scene and not really our cup of finely blended Japanese tea.

No Japanese hotel would be truly Japanese without at least one quirk, and the Monterey Hotel Kyoto duly delivers with not only an onsen (hot baths), but also a chapel in the courtyard. And we’re not talking a small room where you can sit in the dark and get religious; we’re talking a full-on western-style gothic construction complete with pitched roof and lancet windows. I can’t decide whether it’s quite nice or exceptionally kitsch.

The onsen has to be tried out. After a long day traipsing around in the drizzle looking at a bewildering array of temples what could be better than a nice hot bath…with another bloke. Onsen are Japanese hot baths, typically fed by a hot spring – which the Hotel Monterey’s claims to be although as its on the thirteenth floor that may be open to question. Most are gender specific and swimsuits are not permitted. So it’s either get naked or go home. When in Rome…

Apparently you’re supposed to announce your arrival but thankfully I have the place to myself so am spared that embarrassment, not to mention the general discomfort that goes with being butt-naked in the company of other men. It also means that the shock-induced expletives upon entering the water go unheard. And bejeesus, it’s hot. Begin in the outdoor pool, with the odd sensation of your body being boiled alive while your head remains exposed to the rather cool elements; migrate to the indoor pool, then the sauna, the jacuzzi, and even give the cold water pool a very fleeting visit. But it’s all a wee bit too hot and suffocating for me. So I leave the two fellers that have since joined me to shrivel in peace and skulk back to the room and a cold beer. “D’ya see the Bears game?”

What is certainly not odd or eccentric are the hotel’s recommendations for places to eat. Never one to usually rely on such alternatives, invariably for fear of being directed to some over-priced tourist mecca, for some reason here we follow them to the letter. And every recommendation is superb; from a truly authentic sushi restaurant where we sit at the counter beside two salary-men and just keep ordering whatever they do; to a tremendous izakaya with five-star quality food (and beer); and another sushi bar complete with carousel conveying the dishes around the counter. The one night we venture out without a recommendation – for a combo of sushi, sashimi and tempura, which is probably a heinous crime in Japanese cuisine – is the least satisfactory of the four evening meals.

Our second day dawns a bit gloomy too but that still won’t dampen our hearty sight-seeing spirits. Catch a local train to Inari, site of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Behind the main temple building begins a seemingly unending path of over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind through the hills. Each gate has been sponsored or financed by individuals or corporations whose names are inscribed on the gate. And very impressive it is too – gate after gate after gate creating long tunnels of vermilion spirituality.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

A torii gate or three at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Back on the train and on to Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, established in the year 710, which is a long, long time ago. Visit one or two smaller temples en route but the big cheese here is the Todai-ji, the main hall of which, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), is the world’s largest wooden building. Suffice it to say that it’s not the original. That, not surprisingly, has burnt down several times over the years and been painstakingly rebuilt each time. And inside the Big Buddha Hall, is, well, a Big Buddha, some fifteen meters tall. Take a walk in the drizzle through Nara Park to admire yet more cherry blossom and say hello to some rather mangy and smelly deer, and feed them some crackers sold by local vendors. (Since when did deer eat crackers?) Then wind our way slowly all the way back to the station, back to the train, and back to Kyoto.

In contrast to the previous day’s rain and gloom, our third day in Kyoto is deliciously bright and sunny, so we’re off to the bike shop to hire some bicycles and explore Kyoto under pedal power. Such is the civility of Japanese society, that having selected our cycles and reached for the wallet, the old feller shook his head and told us to pay when we get back. If he did that in other places he’d be stripped of his bikes in a matter of minutes.

The Japanese are just incredibly, overwhelmingly, charmingly, unfailingly, nice and polite. I’d imagine that after a while living here the bowing and the etiquette could become rather tiresome, but for a tourist, especially one from Hong Kong, it’s just so refreshing. The Lonely Planet advises that in the event of not being sure what the particular etiquette is, just use some common sense and do what would be considered acceptable in your own country. Perhaps not such good advice when it comes to the mainland Chinese. It’s no wonder the two countries historically hate each other. Could two countries possibly be so diametrically opposed in terms of manners and etiquette?

Get on our bikes and ride over to Teramachi Street but we’re a bit early for the shops so head east towards the river and then north towards Gion. Then along the aforementioned Hanami-koji, and further north towards Shinbashi-dori which the Lonely Planet describes as one of the loveliest streets in Japan if not the whole of Asia. And they’re not far wrong. With the cherry blossom, the canal, the old fashioned low rise buildings and the cobbled streets, it is stunningly beautiful. And a couple of geisha even appear to complete the picture, pursued paparazzi-style by tourists, Japanese and gaijin alike, as they totter down the street in their wooden heels.


Geisha Shinbashi-dori

Pick up some tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) and a bento box from a convenience store and sit by the canal for an al fresco lunch. Then back on the bikes to follow the Japanese equivalent of a tow-path along the river. After seeing a purple heron feeding in the canal, there are egrets and cranes fishing in the river. And that’s about the extent of my bird-watching knowledge and I daresay I’ve probably got them wrong an’ all. With the cherry blossom everywhere, the birds on the river, folk out enjoying the sunshine, and us enjoying our cycling, Kyoto seems wonderful today.

Next stop is the Imperial Palace, no longer occupied by any royalty of course – they moved to Tokyo years ago. We’d understood the Palace to be closed to the public but more by luck than judgement we’ve hit the Spring Open Day period when it’s not only open to the public but also free of charge. It’s also rather damned crowded and in truth there’s not a huge amount to see but still well worth the hour or so it takes to walk around it. Whilst previously rather nonplussed by Japanese gardens, or any gardens for that matter, it’s actually the immaculately landscaped and tended gardens which are of most interest.

Opt against a cycle over to Nijo Castle and instead choose to enjoy another leisurely cycle all the way back down the river to Teramachi Street, and on to Nishiki market, a narrow, five-block long shopping street lined with more than one hundred shops, most selling food – some cooked and some not; some recognisable and some very definitely not. And finally back to the cycle shop to return the bikes and pay our money. And that must be the best ten quid I’ve ever spent. And for some reason which still escapes me, we failed to visit Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, one of Kyoto’s premier destinations, if not one of the country’s, and one of those places that frequently appears on lists of things you must see before you die. Oops.

And that’s the end of our time in Kyoto. Another spell in the onsen would be an ideal way to soothe away the aching muscles but love the Japanese as much as I do I’ve had enough of hanging out with naked men.

Three Days In Tokyo

All countries have their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Little peculiarities written into the national psyche that make them so different to our own and make the point of travel. But nowhere seems so utterly different to our western world as Japan. On one level its vast cities appear much the same as any other car-clogged canyons of concrete, glass and steel. And yet, in so many other ways, it is utterly distinctive. And as its largest city nowhere are those differences more apparent than Tokyo, which is just fantastically bonkers.
Senso-ji Buddhist Shrine

Cherry blossom at Senso-ji Buddhist Shrine

While Kyoto is spiritual and historic; and Hiroshima a symbol of both tragedy and hope; Tokyo is where the extremes of consumer culture meet the quirkiness of some truly eccentric folk. I’m sure it has its spiritual side and the normality of the salary-man’s life, but who wants to see that when the neon is beckoning, cosplay is everywhere and Elvis is jiving in the park?

Tokyo is also widely regarded as being criminally expensive. Which means space is at a premium and accommodation premium-priced. Hotel Niwa in the Suidobashi district, our home for three nights, is very nice indeed. Tastefully decorated, reasonably well located and good value for money, it gives a new meaning to the word ‘compact’. It’s a marvel of miniaturisation from the three-inch deep wardrobe to the micro-fridge with room to chill, well, nothing. If either of us so much as rolls over in the middle of the night, we’ll be out of the bed and on the floor. If we can find any floor space that is.

And of course the largest feature in the miniature bathroom is the gigantic throne of a Japanese toilet. Seat warmer, bidet, spray, stop/start buttons, modesty flush, music; it’s like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise in there. For the British, and our obsession with toilet humour, it is an endless source of amusement. I’m surprised it doesn’t tell crap jokes.

And as a Brit, we sadly expect to be able to communicate in the Queen’s English wherever we go. And that simply does not work in Japan. Whether it is due to centuries of isolationism, a stubborn resistance to the West, or that they simply don’t care, English is not widely spoken at all. When myself and Brendan Murray were here over ten years ago, getting something to eat was so challenging that we ate at McDonalds half the time.

But then we didn’t stumble across another great Japanese invention, the izakaya, a pub-style eatery, where the famously reserved Japanese supposedly let their hair down and get on the lash. Pull up a stool at the bar, order a few dishes, wash them down with liberal doses of draught beer, order more food, more draught beer, and so on until you’re either stuffed or can’t walk. Or both. What is there not to like about that?

The izakaya we find in the Ginza charges ¥294 for a pint of draught Asahi. Hang on, that’s just HKD23, or £2. We reconfirm this with the waiter, neck the first, order a second and get through several more over the course of a lengthy and excellent dinner. The whole meal must have been less than HKD500, or £42. And I thought Japan was supposed to be criminally expensive?!

But we’re not here only to drink beer and some sight-seeing is required. In the Asakusa district in Northern Tokyo, we squeeze our way along the bustling Nakamise-dori, a shopping street full of tourist tat and street food, to arrive at Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 7th century. Mind you, given Japan’s history of internecine fighting, earthquakes and the fact that their oldest buildings tended to be made of wood, not all structures are original, or as old as one might like to think. But it’s certainly atmospheric, popular and very photogenic.

A short walk from Senso-ji and we’re confronted by the Asahi Beer Hall, one of the buildings of the Asahi Breweries headquarters. Atop the Beer Hall is the Asahi Flame, an enormous golden structure, said to represent both the ‘burning heart of Asahi beer’ and a frothy head. Except that it looks less like a flame and more like something to be found in one of their state-of-the-art toilets, and is indeed often referred to as “the golden turd” – and the Asahi Beer Hall itself as “poo building” – by many Tokyo residents. How’s that for gratitude? Asahi spend millions of dollars on a Philippe Starck-designed futuristic building and the locals call it the poo building. Brilliant.


Hanami – the very popular pastime of viewing the cherry blossom

Asakusa is also the centre of Tokyo’s shitamachi, literally ‘low city’, where many of its older low rise neighbourhoods still exist, so we take a stroll around a few side streets in search of olde worlde Tokyo. Find little or nothing olde worlde and meander over to Ueno-koen, one of the city’s number one cherry blossom viewing (hanami) locations. And it is indeed very popular. Very popular. So popular that despite how beautiful the uniformly-pink cherry blossom is we move quite quickly through the park, come out the other side into the Yanesen district and wander round more shitamachi style streets. I don’t think we find the main sights – Yanaka Ginza and Yanaka Cemetery – but do find some nice quiet side streets, a smaller cemetery and no end of small, local shrines. It’s a lovely, peaceful, under-stated neighbourhood.

An evening dinner in the Ginza is unremarkable save for the sushi chef bearing an uncanny resemblance to Matt Le Blanc. With no English menu and no prices we order conservatively for fear of being in a credit-card melting situation, only to find the final bill remarkably modest – less than HKD1,200 (£100), for four of us.

Day three in Tokyo and this time we’re heading off west to Harajuku and Shibuya. Begin with a stroll down Tokyo’s ‘Champs Elysee’, Omote-sando, chock full of the same high-end brands that adorn the Ginza. But the back streets immediately behind Omote-sando are far more interesting with lots of small, independent boutiques and vintage clothing stores.

Walk up Takeshita Dori (there’s lots of shits and fuks in Japanese place names which provide no end of titillation for those of a childlike disposition like myself) which is described as the symbol of Harajuku and birthplace of many of Japan’s fashion trends. And so it may once have been. Nowadays the influx of tourists makes it about as edgy as Marks & Spencer. Even the “original” punk shop was rather nice and clean. And the eccentrics who used to hang around Harajuku Station dressed in a cross between the Addams Family and Hello Kitty-on-acid appear to have moved elsewhere. We take a walk round to Yoyogi Park to see if the dudes dressed as Elvis are still there, and there are a few, but the cold weather would appear to have dampened both their numbers and their jiving.


One of Japan’s many eccentrics. Only he can tell you what is going on here.

Cat Street offers more small, independent stores, and leads us down to Shibuya, site of the famous Shibuya crossing, a confluence of roads and pedestrian crossings reputedly traversed by around 100,000 people every hour. When the lights turn red, they do so in all directions, stopping the traffic entirely, and turning the whole intersection over to the pedestrians. It has become a tourist spot in its own right to the extent that the second floor Starbucks with a prime viewing spot reputedly serves only tall coffees (no grandes) to prevent people lingering too long. It’s a crazy demonstration of extreme urbanisation.

Tokyo has one final dose of insanity as we take the subway to Shinjuku where the neon lights typify your vision of Tokyo and make Causeway Bay or Piccadilly Circus look positively dim. Although the neon is not what we’re looking for. We duck down an alley into a rabbit warren of tight alleyways housing over two hundred tiny bars. And much like our hotel room it’s a new definition of tiny. Most seat only four or five people and probably cater to the same four or five people night after night. They’re so small it feels like you’re intruding – like stepping into someone’s living room, sitting yourself down and asking for a pint. The one we honour with our presence, the Albatross, is positively gargantuan – it must accommodate at least a dozen, albeit at a squeeze. They are the diametric opposite of your super-sized, straight-out-of-the-box, standardised chains, and a wonderfully kooky place to have a last late night beer in this wonderfully kooky city.

Sleepwalking Through Luang Prabang

With no idyllic beaches or secluded islands, no major cities and very little nightlife, the landlocked South East Asian state of Laos faces tough competition for the tourist dollar.

Having opened up to tourism only as recently as 1989 – and being labelled as the most heavily bombed country on earth – cannot help. But that isolation may be working in its favour as the sleepy little town of Luang Prabang in north-central Laos, offers a peace and tranquillity, and an ambience and authenticity, that is increasingly hard to find elsewhere in Asia.

Buddhist monks and temples, coffee and baguettes, calmness and serenity, are the relaxing order of the day here.

Monks in Luang Prabang

The morning alms collection

Although it wasn’t always that way. According to one source, in order to stop the spread of communism in Asia, from 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. It’s a wonder that there is anything of the country left to visit.

But of course there is – and it is unassumingly delightful. Our one and only destination when we visited in February 2006 for a five-day trip was Luang Prabang, which, with a population of just 55,000, is Laos’ second biggest city. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 it is a well preserved blend of Laotian and French architectural and cultural styles.

And The Grand Luang Prabang Hotel, located a couple of kilometres southwest of the town centre, is a perfect example of this. Situated on the 59,000 square metre estate of a former palace, the design combines French two-storey colonial architecture with Laotian interior decoration. The gardens slope down to the mighty Mekong River, and the room’s generous balconies provide tranquil views of the river and the mountains beyond. Perfect for an afternoon with a book or an evening’s gin and tonic.

But where the hell is everybody? Either all the other guests were extremely private people, knew something we didn’t, or there genuinely was no on else there. We encountered barely another soul. After one or two nights another couple checked in and were duly put in the room next to us. Countless other rooms to choose from and they put them right next door. We woke one morning to a dulcet Australian tone querying where his f*****g boxers were. So that was nice.

Mekong River

Narrow boats on the mighty Mekong River

Bicycles provide an optimum way of getting around Luang Prabang – there isn’t very far to go after all. The short ride into town is slow and leisurely, passing a local market selling locally produced fruit and veg, a school from which curious children emerge to offer a shy hello, and a modest wat or two. The town centre sits on the confluence of the Mekong and the Khan rivers and is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms, from locals and tourists alike. Shame on us…we couldn’t be bothered getting up that early, and missed it.

There are dozens of wats dotted about here and there, perhaps the most significant being the 16th century Wat Xieng Thong, with its sweeping tiered roofs reaching almost to the ground and its intricate interior gold stencil work. The grounds contain a number of other stupas and chapel halls…and a garage. Well I guess you have to keep your ceremonial carriage somewhere.

Mount Phou Si, a modest 150-metre high hill, has an equally modest shrine on it, but it does afford a panoramic view of the town and the rivers.

What was once the Royal Palace is now the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum. The exhibits include various religious objects, weapons, statues, and paintings… and another garage, this one containing the last king’s collection of cars. When the communists came to power in 1975, they took over the palace and sent the royal family to a “re-education” camp, where I guess they were schooled about the evils of capitalist greed, selfishness and vanity, and collecting foreign vehicles. But they kept them all anyway.

With five days to spend in the area there was no need to rush anything. One activity a day was sufficient. The rest of the day was given over to hanging out in coffee shops, drinking locally-produced espresso and eating baguettes as the saffron-robed monks strolled by, their parasols protecting them from the sun’s glare. Or sitting in a cafes overlooking the rather shabby riverbanks with a thirst-quenching Beerlao in hand.

Fine dining has reached Luang Prabang and we did give it a try. But we found ourselves spending most evenings hanging out in the night market enjoying all-you-can-eat meals for USD1 each; fresh spring rolls, delicious larb, papaya salad, sticky rice and fermented sausages.

Come 8pm and the town is quiet – perhaps not surprising if everyone is up at dawn to feed the monks. In Laos’ second biggest city you can walk down the middle of the main street in the early evening unmolested by anything, least of all traffic.

The Pak Ou Caves make for a pleasant day trip away from the town. Situated twenty-five kilometres upriver from Luang Prabang, a car and driver took us to the nearest village before we boarded a boat to cross the river from the nearest village. It is possible to take a boat all the way but two hours there and two hours back on a thudding longtail held limited appeal. One of the most respected holy sites in Laos, the caves are a shrine to the river spirit and Lord Buddha, and are set in a dramatic limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River. And they are jam-packed with around 4,000 figures of the Buddha. There are two caves to visit and while some light filters into the first one, the second requires a torch to find any of the thousands of hidden icons. It’s an eerie and ghostly experience, poking around in the dark, waiting for the weak torchlight to illuminate the sometimes tiny figures.

Kuang Si Waterfalls

The river floods through the forest at Kuang Si

Twenty nine kilometres south of Luang Prabang are the Kuang Si Waterfalls, set in the midst of the Laos jungle. The bright turquoise river pours out of the jungle down a number of falls, then tumbles gently over a number of small limestone ledges creating calm and cooling swimming pools. As the water flows over the ledges between the rocks and the trees with shards of sunlight streaking through the canopy it feels like swimming through a flooded world.

Which is probably about as exciting as Luang Prabang gets. It really is a world apart from, well, everywhere. It’s the urban equivalent of a lovable sloth. Time slows down. Life slows down. You slow down. The rest of the world doesn’t really matter. Everything becomes so somnambulant you can literally sleepwalk through the days.

For an urban environment, it does not get much more restful and relaxing than this.


In an otherwise non-descript Bangkok neighbourhood, adjacent to the city’s Chinatown, Bangkok’s decaying automobiles go to die.

Talat Noi, a rabbit-warren of parallel streets and perpendicular sois, occupies a triangle of the Samphanthawong district immediately to the south and west of the art-deco Bangkok Railway Station, until it abuts the milky-coffee swirl of the Chao Phraya River.

Bangkok’s Chinatown is a well-established tourist hotspot, especially as night falls, dinner beckons and Yaowarat’s neon signs light up the street in a riot of fluorescent colours; a picture-postcard of the archetypal Chinatown. But a short step away from the neon and the noodles lies an altogether different side to Bangkok’s Chinese history.

Fiat 500 in Talat Noi

A Fiat 500 destined to move no more

It is a district of tight alleyways, occasionally widening or narrowing, taking ninety-degree right and left turns, and sometimes just stopping altogether. It’s a area of old shop-houses where the bakeries, laundries and workshops operate below and family life goes on upstairs. It’s a neighbourhood of crumbling moss-greened buildings, where weeds poke through cracks in the masonry and sprout from gutters; where abandoned spaces peek from behind padlocked gates.

And it’s a place where the old trades and the old people go on much as they have done for so many years, ignoring, or ignored by, the modernity that is so rapidly changing the face of so much of Bangkok.

The blacksmiths who once plied their trade in an area known as Chiangkong have evolved into mechanics and car-parts shops. Now-defunct engines are pulled apart, sorted and recycled for use as spare parts. Huge seemingly disordered mounds of grease-blackened cylinders, valves, connecting rods, crankshafts, pistons, camshafts, starter motors, dynamos and flywheels occupy street corners and entire workshops, spilling out onto the pavements. Equally greasy mechanics hammer away at the metal and sparks fly from power tools as the reconditioning goes on in countless cheek-by-jowl workshops. If there is an order to the chaos, it is not apparent. It’s a wonder there is a market for such a volume of parts, but the hammering and sorting goes on.

Talat Noi - Spare parts

Mounds of spare parts fill the alleyways

The smells of oil and grease and solder from the workshops mingle with the smells of baked and fried food which waft out of the bakeries and street food stalls – talat noi literally means “little market”. One unnamed alley is packed so tightly with markets stalls as to be claustrophobic. The umbrellas and awnings covering the stalls create such a dense canopy that it’s a rare shaft of sunlight that hits the street. It’s single-lane traffic for the trader’s carts and barrows if not for pedestrians too.

In a move that surely has more to do with enterprise than preservation some of the locals have recognized that the authenticity of the district has tourist appeal; that not everyone wants temples, markets and fake handbags; that many tourists want to immerse themselves in something approaching the everyday Bangkok; the old Bangkok. A number of low-cost, backpacker-oriented hostels have opened-up for business and subsequently opened-up the area for tourism.

Not that some of the locals would appear to notice. The residents, shopkeepers and tradesmen carry on their work regardless. As we pause to marvel at the decaying shell of a Fiat 500 which, although intact, is destined never to move again, at least not in one piece, a group of mechanics are boisterously working their way through a bottle of whisky, paying no heed whatsoever to the camera-toting tourists who now find their workplace something of a curiosity.

Talat Noi has also become a home for street-art, or graffiti, depending on your point of view. San Chao Rong Kueak is decorated with a number of relatively unassuming but charming wall paintings depicting street life; an old lady practicing tai chi, an assortment of bicycles and rickshaws, a sequence of car wheels and a seated painter writing Chinese slogans onto the wall that for a moment looks like the artist himself. Charoen Krung Soi 32, which otherwise appears to be a hang-out for resting taxi-drivers, is home to a dozen or so large murals, ranging from the violent, to the surreal, and on to cutesy-anime-inspired cartoons.

Bangkok street art

Bangkok’s Chinese community pre-dates the founding of the capital. Chinese traders had been coming here since the 16th century, originally settling where the Grand Palace now sits. When the capital was moved from Ayutthaya to Bangkok the Chinese were requested to move a couple of miles south to Yaowarat, and the area now known as Chinatown.

So aside from the art and artisans the area is also rich in local history. In the southern corner of Talat Noi, on Soi Wanit 2, stands the Portuguese Holy Rosary Church. Founded in 1787 and Bangkok’s oldest place of Christian worship, a few minutes inside its cool interior transports you to a pious Europe. A few shakes north, where Soi Wanit 2 dissects Yotha Road and in a prime riverfront location stands Bangkok’s first local bank. Now a functioning branch of Siam Commercial Bank, the yellow-and-white colonial-style building is so beautifully maintained it looks new.

Being mercantile as the Chinese are, the area was home to numerous wealthy merchants, some of whose residences still remain in various states of disrepair. A little further north from the Bank and down one of the many wandering arms of Soi Wanit 2 is one of the most notable, the Sol Heng Tai house, consisting of four ornately decorated houses surrounding a central courtyard. No longer occupied by the family, that central courtyard is now occupied by a large, ugly, utilitarian swimming-pool.

And of course, religion is everywhere, whether it be the sizeable Chinese-Vietnamese Jao Sien Khong shrine, the swathes of coloured ribbons which adorn so many trees, or the individual shrines smouldering away in the back of each and every shop-house. The smell of incense adds another layer to the ever-changing air.

Getting around Talat Noi couldn’t be easier. Get a bicycle, get pedalling, and get lost. It’s a small area, less than one kilometre in length and a few hundred metres wide. The place is so labyrinthine that most of the maps are useless anyway. Just duck down an alley, turn left, turn right and see what you find. If you get lost, turn around and find something else.

Talat Noi is a wonderfully charismatic and authentic Bangkok neighbourhood; old and elegant and gritty (or greasy as the case may be) at the same time; and as far removed from the modernity of Siam Square or the hedonism of Khao San Road as can be imagined.

And if you need a carburettor for an original 1950’s Morris Minor 1000, there’ll be one in there somewhere.

Fishing For Dollars On Inle Lake

Our final destination on a nine-day visit to Myanmar is Inle Lake, in Shan State, in the east of the country. It’s a forty minute flight from Nyaung U in Bagan to the delightfully named Heho, and away we go on a forty-five minute drive from Heho to the lake itself.

And in this bucolic setting it is immediately apparent that we have entered yet another realm of this multi-faceted country. One where the long established ways of life continue. Where local traditions and local industries go on as they have for centuries.


Celebrity Intha fisherman