A week in The Netherlands

Visiting Netherlands after my trip to Morocco, was refreshing. The people are very polite without exxageration.

While making a query at the train station, I said “Hi”. The girl behind the counter educated me to say “Good afternoon”. I was taken aback but never offended, knowing that she bears no ill meaning behind that. The Dutch says their mind.

For a week Netherlands trip, we spent equal times in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. I would say it was a very relaxing trip and the weather was perfect too.

Netherlands is the bicycle capital of the world. There are too many bikes and I wish Singapore aspire to follow suit. We need a cycling paths for green environment, healthy and safety reasons. I wish cycling is normal, part of our everyday life, and people to be considerate and gracious like what I’ve witnessed in Netherlands.

Amsterdam

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Walking is indeed the best way to see the city. We walked a lot during this trip and Nicky has to get a massage from sore legs. We did not spend too much time visiting museums since we wanted to explore the cities as much as we can. We board a canal cruise and enjoying the unique architecture along the way.

The next morning, we took train to Zaanse Schans, a neighbourhood in the Dutch town of Zaandam, near Amsterdam. This place is interesting with historic windmills and distinctive green wooden houses of an 18th/19th-century village.

I enjoyed the cycling and roaming around the area. It was lovely seeing those old historic windmills, and visiting interactive exhibits on bakery, rare handicrafts such as wooden clog carving, barrel making and pewter casting.

We also visited Haarlem, a photogenic medieval city of cobblestone streets and gabled houses. It’s the center of a major flower-bulb-growing district, and famous for its outlying tulip fields, art museums and hofjes (almshouses built around leafy courtyards).

Rotterdam

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Rotterdam is a major port city in the Dutch province of South Holland. Some of the interesting places we visited were the Cubic Houses at Blaak station, markets, Erasmo Bridge and surroundings.

We also travel to Kinderdikj, famous for its 19 authentic windmills. Another interesting cycling trip and beautiful windmills. As we arrived late, we only have an hour to wander the places but it is worth a visit.

The Hague

Ambassade Arena Aparthotel is the best hotel we stayed in Netherlands. The room is spacious with a cooking facility. The view from the top is amazing and the tram-station is just outside the hotel. The Scheveningen beach, casino and musical-theater are just in walking distance. I love the atmosphere at the beach, it is definitely more than a beach.

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Delft is a beautiful city that enjoys a worldwide reputation due to its connection with Johannes Vermeer, Delft Blue earthenware and the Royal House. I enjoyed wandering along canals, churches, mansions and courtyards.

The Netherlands is not known for its cuisine, but they have fresh produce. Haring (oily silvery-colored fish) or ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ is probably the most famous Dutch food. The cheese, Gouda and Edam, is also known all around the world. I was excited to see so many Indonesian restaurants, and I went there couple of times to satisfy the crave of spicy foods.

Entering a “coffee shop” in Amsterdam is quite an experience. Official “Coffee shops” which have a green and white licence sticker in the window are a place where one can legally smoke weeds. There is a long menu list at the counter where one choose the kind of “coffee” they wish.

I was impressed with The Netherlands. The trains are efficient, frequent and reasonably priced. The canals are clean and appealing. The extensive bike trails network, historical buildings and architecture are interesting. The people were also friendly, non-judgemental, and helpful. I love to visit again, perhaps during tulips season.

 intansg

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Accommodation:

Amsterdam      2 Nights: Hampton Hilton (Arena Boulevard)

Rotterdam        2 Nights: Hotel Bazaar

The Hague       2 Nights: Ambassade Arena Aparthotel

Schipol Airport        1 Nights: NH Amsterdam Schipol Airport

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3,000 km road trip across Morocco

“Fly out or you will be in jail,” the female custom officer said.

OMG. I always thought I hold one of the strongest passport in the world and can stay almost everywhere without a visa. I’ve just learned that a Singaporean can only stay 90 days out of 180 days in Europe (Schengen countries). So, in order not to overstay, I need to spend some days at a non-schengen countries.

There are some places I love to visit. After some thoughts, I decided to visit Morocco.

MOROCCO

Driving Map across Morocco

Morocco is a North African country bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The population is distinguished by its Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences, mainly French.

We started and ended our journey in Tangier. Our first stop was Chefchouen. It was a 2.5 hours drive to our first riad. A riad is similar to a Bed and Breakfast, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden, courtyard and/or roof terrace. Staying in a riad which usually located in the medina is a unique experience, but it is not for everyone.

My opinion of Riad:

Pros: Unique beautiful experience, easy access to medina, shopping and restaurants

Cons: Usually small and compact, not sound proof – can be noisy for light sleeper, no private parking, no amenities

CHEFCHOUEN

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Chefchouen is a beautiful blue city. We enjoyed getting lost at the medina and the square of Plaza Uta El-Hammam. Life moves at a slower pace in this city. It’s a perfect place to wander and take photos.

I had my first taste of Tangine for lunch. Tangine is the slow-cooked dish of Morocco and revered for its sweet and savoury flavours. Tangine can be cooked up from almost anything; lamb, chicken, beef or even fish.

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In the evening, we had our next tangine dinner at La Lampe Magique restaurant. The scenery was beautiful and the call to prayer, azan, provide beautiful sound to the ears.

MEKNES

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On the way to Meknes, we spotted a Sunday market near Laghdir. Lucky day! To me, a visit to local market is an efficient way to immerse ourselves into one’s culture. It was so interesting to get a sense for the locals, their products, food, and how they live their life.  I bought olives, fruits and a colourful Berber hat.

Meknes has its charm on its own. Some of the main attractions are Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and Bab al-Mansour. We admired the ornately decorated gateway of Bab Mansour, the city square, and the many winding streets of the city.

FES

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The drive to Fes is only an hour journey but the difficulty we had were finding the parking. A Moroccon guy in a scooter spotted us looking for direction and approached us to follow him. As naïve as we were, we followed. He showed us a private parking place, showed us our next riad, and convinced us to take “a professional tour guide” that will show Fes for five hours.

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Fes medina is beautiful, with medieval architecture, vibrant souks and old-world atmosphere. Some of the places we visited are the Couwara tanneries, 14th centuries Madrasa Bou Inania and Café Clock.

MERZOUGA (SAHARA DESERT)

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The drive to Merzouga was the longest but we enjoyed the journey. Beautiful scenery along the way, and the road except in very few places is well maintained. We spent about eleven hours on the road, including stops. We stopped at Azrou for coffee, the cedar forest for the monkeys, and village Timahdite. We had our lunch at Zaida town in the Midelt province.

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The camel trekking across Sahara desert was an experience of the lifetime. With a group of thirteen, we talked and laughed, looking out over the vast of Sahara desert, swaying with the beats and sounds of drums, and staring at the night sky. Beautiful stars.

OUARZAZATE

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Ouarzazate is a city in the south of Morocco’s High Atlas mountain known as a gateway to the Sahara Desert. It is a huge Taourirt Kasbah, home to a 19th-century palace, and has the views over the rugged local landscape, which features in several movies such as The Mummy, Gladiator, and the recent ones, Prison Break.

We had our lunch at Todgha Gorge, the limestone river canons located at the eastern part of the High Atlas mountains near the town of Tinerhir. As recommended by the riad host, I had my first Hammam. The Hammam itself was a nice experience but the massage was mediocre. I had better in Singapore.

KELAAT M’GOUNA

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Link: Morocco’s Festival of Roses 2018

When we planned our visit, the dates for Rose festival were not confirmed. Some websites mentioned that it will be on first week of May. We booked our stay for second week.  We just hope that our dates coincides with the festival week, which they did. How lucky we are!? We were so fortunate to experience the Rose festival which include the visit to Rose valleys where the roses are harvested. The exhibition, flea markets, and traditional musical performances were interesting. We also watched the parade with the selection of the annual Rose Queen. The smells of roses fills the air at el Kelaa M’Gouna.

MARRAKECH

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On the way to Marrakech, we visited Ait Ben Haddou, the red-earth city. My favourite movie of all time, Gladiator, was filmed here. It was a wonderful place but we were too tired to explore more grounds.

It was not good getting lost in medina. We got so confused with the streets, panicking, and an ‘angel’ demanded Dh200 (equivalent to 20) for showing us a public parking. “Do you think this is China?” he said when I gave him Dh100. It  makes my blood boil! A local taxi in Morocco charge around Dh20 – Dh100.

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In the evening, we enjoyed siting in the terrace of Le Grand Balcon du Cafe Glacier, which has an incredible view of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the bustling courtyard and market place. We had to pay Dh20 per person (exchange with a soft drink).

ESSAOUIRA

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Essaouria is a laid-back alternative to Marrakesh. We heard plenty of stories about Jimi Hendrix in Essaouira. This is another city that I enjoyed the most, together with Chefchouen. The time in the souks was pleasant. I enjoyed the fresh air, walking to Skala du port for the picturesque views over the fishing port.

RABAT

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Rabat is Morocco’s capital of Islamic and French colonial heritage. We witnessed many quarrels and shouting in Rabat. Maybe it was the starting of the fasting month, which testing one’s patience. Or maybe that’s the way it is in the north.

We visited Kasbah of the Udayas, the city oldest quarter, built during the Almohad dynasty in 12th century which has a beautiful garden. We also visited Chellah (old fortress) and Hassan Tower (incomplete mosque) during Friday praying.

TANGIER

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The city of Tangier is located at the western entrance of the Strait of Gibralta, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Some tourist especially those coming on motorcycles adventures, take ferry from Spain with a sailing duration of one hour.

Overall, I would say that Morocco is a very beautiful country and urge friends to experience themselves. There are many cool sights and contrasting experiences that is unforgettable. We met some nice people and appreciate their warm and kindness. We also met some interesting characters that testing one’s patience. This is why researcher says that traveling is good for mental health.

Written By: 

intansg

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SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS:

  • Do your homework and plan carefully especially if you intend to self-drive.
  • Staying in ‘Riad’ is a good experience, but for a less stressful events, book a hotel with own private carpark.
  • If you are ‘lost’, keep calm and call the hotel for direction. Do not allow anyone to take advantage of your situation, they will demand loads of money.
  • There were many police stops, ensure that you abide to the speed limit. If not, they will ask for coffee money (DH200 – 20) and cigarettes.
  • Hiring a Guide in Morocco is NOT necessary.
  • There are many tourist scams in Morocco, special mention Fes and Marrakech. Some work in groups. I understand that these people are trying to make a living but the events will scare off tourists who are genuinely interested in visiting this beautiful country. Something need to change.
  • Be firm when being approached by the ‘friendliest’ man in the street. Say ‘La Syukran’ (no thanks) for any offers to help or showing places. Our own experience – we were greeted by a friendly man who said we should take pictures from the cafe terrace. “It’s free and has nice view”, he said. From the terrace, he brought us down to another exit which is a shop! He became very aggressive when we told him that we were not interested to buy anything. In the end, we were forced to buy dry dates for Dh100 (which were the “cheapest” in the shop), so as not to create chaos.
  • Stay away from ‘chocolato’ – drugs.
  • Stay away from Henna ladies unless you wanted a henna tattoo.
  • Communication barriers in many parts of Morocco as most speak only Berber, Arabic and French. Best to learn some basic.
  • Take small notes with you. Some vendors pretended they do not have enough change.
  • Be extra careful when taking photographs. Most Moroccon do not like their photos to be taken, or they will demand for money or the camera.
  • In the airport, the immigration queue is long and slow. Make sure to have ample time to arrive at the airport.

ACCOMMODATION:

Chefchouen 1 Night Accommodation: Dar Z’man Guesthouse S$50/night

*Public Parking near Riad Madrid -30 dirham-

Meknes 1 Night Accommodation: Riad Hiba Meknes S$45/night

*Public Parking along the street -20 dirham-

Fes 1 Night Accommodation: Dar Bouanania S$32/night

*Public Parking Bab Boujlad -30 dirham-

Merzouga 1 Night Accommodation: Auberge Le Petit Prince S$40/night

1 Night Accommodation: Sahara Desert Camel Trekking

*Private own parking -no charge-

Ouarzazate 1 Night Accommodation: Dar El Nath S$70/night

*Public Parking -30 dirham-

Kelaat M’Gouna 2 Night Accommodation: Kasbah Tasseurte S$40/night

*Private own parking -no charge-

Marrakech 2 Nights Accommodation: Riad Jnane Mogador S$60/night

*Public Parking across the medina -60 dirham-

Essaouira 2 Nights Accommodation: Ryad Les Sultanes S$40/night

*Public Parking -60 dirham-

Rabat 1 Night Accommodation: Riad Meftaha S$90/night

*Park car in Street of Iran, next to the riad -no charge

Tangier 1 Night Accommodation: Hotel Continental S$60/night

*Private own parking -no charge-

 

 

First time in Greece – 12 nights

I have always thought of myself as an independent and organised traveller. For my trip to Greece, I didn’t plan much, except in figuring out the general routes. I wanted to experience traveling like hippies. But this is not my style.

It turned out that it was more expensive to purchase ferry tickets and hotels on the go. And it was very stressful to figure out how to go from one place to the other. We spent two nights in Athensthree nights in Santorinitwo nights in Naxostwo nights in Paros, and three nights in Nafplio. On our last day, we took early bus from Nafplio to Athens, stored our luggage, and explored Athens for the last few hours.

ATHENS

Staying at a hotel next to Monastiraki station is the best choice. Monastiraki neighbourhood is near to many iconic landmarks, restaurants, flea markets, and direct metro to and from Athens airport, and Piraeus Port for island hopping.

Monastiraki Square is lively and provide a very nice experience. I love hanging out in Monastiraki and Plaka, and soaking in the ambience. Athens streets are picturesque, full of graffiti, with views of every day life accompanying by soothing Greek music in the background.

We climbed the Acropolis hill and had our first view of the Parthenon, the iconic temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. Once we’re done with the sacred rock, we headed to the Acropolis Museum before stopping for a lunch-Greek style.

We visited Syntagma Square to see the changing of the guard in front of the House of Parliament. It was rather unique. Their uniforms and movements were so interesting and they have the greatest tassels on their shoes.

 

In the evening, we went to Mount Lycabettus to enjoy the sunset and panaromic view at the top of the hill. Indeed it was beautiful.

During our last day in Greece, it happens to be a Sunday where Athens flea market is opened. We visited the bustling and quaint market and have a late lunch accompanied by live Greek music.

SANTORINI

As soon as I arrived Santorini by ferry, I was overwhelmed by it’s beauty. I was in awe. Everything about this place is stunning.

From Santorini port, we took a bus to Fira, and changed another bus to Oia. Oia is a charming, bustling village and has plenty of exciting places to dine. We witnessed the beautiful sun set over the caldera as the town literally lights up into wonderful shades.

 

Oia village is the most popular spot for sunsets, and we were happy with our choice of stay. We wandered at the boulevard at anytime of the day and able to take good pictures without any other people in the frame.

During our stay, we rented a car and explore the island. We visited the ancient Akrotiri, Pyrgos, Emporio, Ancient Thira, Kamari Beach, and Perissa Beach.

 

As we were short of time, we didn’t complete the full trail to Ancient Thira. It was worth the hike up to the top of the hill to see the ancient ruins and the entire island from a bird’s eye view.

We were fortunate to experience Easter in Pyrgos village. The prayers, chanting, and the lightings were spectacular. The entire village glows ablaze, it is a true magical sight not to be missed.

NAXOS

The first thing we noticed when we arrived Naxos is the unfinished Temple of Apollo (also known as Portara), that has become the postcard for Naxos. The view was amazing especially as the sun goes down between the columns.

We were looking for our place of stay, but got confused with the little alleys. Greek people are warm, friendly and eager to help. The lady walked with us to our destination, we were so grateful.

I rated Pension Irene as the best value for money accommodation we had in Greece. It really is such a great place to stay! The rooms include a kitchenette with a mini fridge, stove top, and kettle. The location is ideal and the host is wonderful.

 

We rented a car and enjoyed wandering around the island. Naxos is a big island in the heart of Aegean sea. A very interesting place that we can experience variable activities. One needs at the minimum three nights to explore, and we had only two.

The church of Ayios Nikolaos is peculiar and the surrounding environment is full of nature. We also visited Halki, Apiranthos, Filoti, Koronos and Koronida.

PAROS

Upon arrival at the port, we couldn’t find our hotel host. It turned out that Andreas has waited for us the previous midnight,  mixing up the ‘am/pm’ as they use 24 hours time format in Greece. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay at La Sellini.

Parikia is the main village and it was wonderful. It has everything; shopping, eateries, bars, castle, beaches, and lovely locals who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and special.

We rented a car and drive around the entire island. We wandered through beautiful traditional villages like Naoussa. Naoussa is a charming and colourful village, where the ruins of a Venetian fortress stand at the entrance to its beautiful small harbor.

 

Lefkes is a quaint village in the middle of the island with lots of little nooks and crannys. The Byzantine church is beautiful with a breathtaking views of the sea.

The island itself has some nice beaches with sand and clear blue waters, some great mountain and sea experiences.

NAFPLIO

Upon reaching Piraeus port, we bought bus ticket at the Nafplio ticket desk (across the road), crossing back, and took bus 420 to Kiffisos bus terminal. From there, we took a bus to Nafplio.

Located in the eastern Peloponnese, Nafplio is a seaport town with it picturesque bougainvillea streets and lovely sunny squares. We are forever thankful that a friend, Gio, is kind enough to let us stay at his cozy and beautiful place near the main square.

While we can take taxi to Palamidi fortress, we enjoyed the climb up to 999 steps. The views were spectacular and we had plenty of stops along the way to catch our breath and taking pictures. The site provides a great vista to see the surrounding area and other castle ruins dotting the neighboring hills. It gives you the sense of what it was like to live in those times.

On Saturday, we visited farmers’ market that stretches from Kyprou Street to Martiou Avenue. There were plenty of fresh fish, vegetables, cheeses, fruits and daily stuff. We paid €1 for 3 kg of oranges! Maybe the old lady likes us or just wanted to clear her produce. Whatever it is, the oranges that came straight from her farm were sweet and juicy.

 

On one of the evening, we visited Bourtzi, another fortress on an islet west of the old town. The boat sails along the coast and we enjoyed the beautiful view of the sunset. We also enjoyed relaxing at the lovely Aarvanitia beach with white pebbles and aqua water. The view was spectacular.

 

We encountered some greatest food moment while in Greece. We enjoyed the food at Lotza, Oia – Santorini, Relax Pizzeria at Naxos overlooking the port, and Bairaktaris Tarvena at Monastiraki Square in Athens.

Relax Pizzeria at Naxos. What a view!

Greece has many islands to discover, and is a fantastic country to visit all the year through. This country has plenty to offer and we truly enjoyed the picture-perfect scenery, fascinating culture, the friendly people and cats, and the food.

 

SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS:

  • Be sure to plan ahead – plan and book early.
  • Purchase ferry tickets online. The tickets were sold out fast even in the month of April. Blue Star Ferries – www.bluestarferries.com
  • Stay in Oia for an exclusive view to the sunset, comfort and serenity.
  • Rent a scooter or car to explore the villages. Like everywhere else, we suggest you to take pictures and videos of the vehicle before signing the dotted lines. In Santorini, they wanted to charge us for a small dent on the car, which we seriously did not commit.
  • Travelling between the main towns is easy on the comprehensive KTEL bus network – www.e-ktel.com
  • Do not flush toilet paper.
  • Be culturally sensitive – bring scarf to cover shoulders when visiting holy places.

ACCOMMODATION:

ATHENS           2 Nights Accommodation: Cecil Hotel Athens www.cecilhotel.gr

SANTORINI      3 Nights Accommodation: Pension The Flower http://flower-santorini.com

NAXOS             2 Nights Accommodation: Pension Irene II https://irenenaxos.com/home-2/

PAROS             2 Nights Accommodation: La Sellini http://laselini.com

 

Amazing India

Continuation from Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Hanoi, Vietnam

Episode 2: India (Agra and Jaipur)

Almost ten years ago, I spent two weeks traveling around northwest India, from Mumbai to Delhi, and Agra. Back from the trip, I swore I’d never go back. But here I am, again… Maybe it was because of Nicky’s requests. Or maybe India is really intriguing.

IMG_8204Being a first timer in India, Nicky wanted to explore everything. We hired a Tuk-Tuk driver who drove us around for the next few days.

Agra Red Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was originally built with the brick by the Hindus but when it was captured by the Islamic Mughals, they rebuilt it with red sandstone. The place is huge and we spent hours admiring the architecture.  From the terraces, we can see the beautiful view of Taj Mahal in a distance.

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In the late afternoon, our Tuk Tuk driver, Jaabar, drove us to Mehtab Bagh, an old garden complex, which is located across the river of Taj Mahal. He told us that we can see the spectacular view of the sunset over Taj Mahal. He was right, this is the ultimate Taj Mahal viewing spot.
This garden is considered as a secret spot as we didn’t find many other foreign tourists. There were a few domestic travelers wandered through this beautiful garden, and workers tending the sprawling vegetation. We were stopped by a group of locals who wanted to take pictures with me. Sorry, Nicky. I’m the popular one.


The next morning, we went to Taj Mahal at the very early hours for the sunrise, and for avoiding the crowds. Taj Mahal is built as an expression of the love that Shah Jahan held for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The beauty of the mausoleum has withstood time and is one of the seven wonders of the world.
IMG_8779The Taj Mahal is epic and breathtaking. The architecture is lovely and the intricate details all over the walls are just perfect. It is not only built of marble stones but the handmade carvings of floral designs embellish with precious blue lapis lazuli and other gemstones just took my breath away. We were simply becoming awestruck by the stories of love, arts, human labor, and patience to put together this dream piece. We enjoyed walking at our own pace and admiring the beauty and serenity of Taj Mahal, and its huge complex.

IMG_9023On the way to Jaipur, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri. Our Driver contacted his friend to pick us up at the entrance. At that moment, I was thinking, “Well, well… Another ‘rip off tourist’ bonanza”. But I was surprised as he was worth the money. We did not have to pay the entrance fees which was about Rs500 each, he was knowledgeable, and he protected us from the group of hostile beggars and sellers.

IMG_9082Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. It was lovely to learn how three of Akbar’s wives from different religion lived together in harmony. Muslim, Hindu and Christian architectural elements were blended beautifully.


There were many locals enjoying their family time together. We also saw many beautiful ladies accompanied by their older siblings, sitting around with their bright beautiful clothes. Our guide told us that the women were seeking for potential husbands.

Fatehpur Sikri is worth a visit, but I think what was off-putting is the number and aggressiveness of beggars and sellers. Nicky was so annoyed with one marble seller, who followed us around and said mean things to him for not buying the overpriced souvenirs.

The guide then brought us to the blessings session near Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chisti. We were asked to pay for the scarves, flowers, and strings to drape onto the tomb and tie the string for wishes. The ‘holy’ guy said that the money would be given to the poor. Three wishes, he said. “One for yourself, one for your special someone, and one for anyone”. He even showed the picture of Katrina Kaif, the Bollywood actress that came to seek blessings. He asked for Rs1,000 each and Nicky and I looked at each other. To me, a charity must be done willingly, it is our choice rather than being forced into it.

IMG_9144Our next stop was the Abhaneri Chand Baori, where we find one of the world’s largest step-wells. This place was constructed around one thousand years ago to improve the water level of the whole region. I first saw this amazing architecture on ‘The Amazing Race’ (Australia) program and was impressed with the artistic design of steps. This place is a definite work of art which is worth visiting.

IMG_9364 copyWe arrived Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, in the evening and had our dinner at Peacock Rooftop restaurant. It was Nicky’s birthday and I had made a reservation earlier prior to our visit. Nicky was surprised to read the “menu” which was my present for him (a self-made photo book). I swear I saw water in his eyes.

The next morning, we had the Tuk Tuk driver from last night waiting for us. Nicky had ‘promised’ him that we will engage his service for sightseeing. I was not happy. For the same amount of money, why would we take a Tuk Tuk instead of a car? It was scorching hot out there, and Amber fort was quite a distance. He asked for Rs800 which was a lot.

City Palace was constructed by the Maharaja of Jaipur and is a huge complex of exquisite’s palaces, gardens, and courtyards. It has a royal collection of textiles, arts, and the armors. The architecture is marvelous and the complex is beautiful, but we didn’t find this place that interesting. It lacks charm.


By the time we finished, the weather has turned increasingly hot and humid. We waited half an hour for the Tuk Tuk driver to come and fetch us, and decided to end his services. We asked him to send us back to the hotel and we paid him Rs500. He gave a sly grin.

IMG_9484 2Amber Fort is in Amer town of Jaipur and is one place we enjoyed the most in Jaipur. The beauty of this place is immaculate; the exterior is a wonderful example of ancient Indian architecture and the interior is artistic and filled with loads of charm and intricate details. We reached Amber Fort quite late, and have to leave after just less than two hours wandering around.

IMG_9531On the way to the Monkey Temple, we stopped to take panoramic snapshots of the Jal Mahal Lake Palace located in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. The scenery was beautiful, and the lake so calm. We would have stayed longer if not because of the heat.

IMG_9674 - Version 3At the entrance of the Monkey Temple, we were hassled by a man to take him as a guide, and buy peanuts from him. It was not a long walk to the temple but he said that we needed protection from the monkeys. We knew this was untrue, but were just too tired to argue.

The trip started with a steep walk to the top of the hill. The monkeys can be quite amusing and friendly but some misbehaved as they scrambled for food. After less than fifteen minutes, we reached the top of the hill. The temple was old and filthy, which somehow creates a certain sense of charm.

While waiting for the sunsets, Nicky asked about the Sadhu. The guide told him that he can call one to give blessings to us. It will take him about thirty minutes to arrive, and we needed to give a large sum of money. I smiled.

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IMG_9727 copyWe were so impressed with Amber Fort and the surrounding area, so the next day, we went back to the town.

Amer village is an ancient village with almost thousand years of history. There were plenty of historical temples and other monuments around. The village is authentic and charming. The shops were colorful and the people are genuinely nice.

We were admiring India’s legendary Royal Enfield motorcycle that was parked at one of the house. The handsome young owner, Vijay, approached us. He was so kind enough to ask if we need any help. He showed us around the area despite the need to go to work. The temple ruins he showed us were both mysterious and beautiful.

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Vijay, owner of this beautiful Royal Enfield classic motorbike

On the way back, we managed to stop at Johri Bazaar, a central market place where we can find almost everything. Situated nearby the market is the Hawa Mahal, which was built in 1799 for the ladies of the royal court. This iconic beautiful building is also known as “The Palace of the Winds”.

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I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more difficult time summing up my travel experience. I was horrified by the poverty, filth, and tourist scams, but Nicky loves the whole adventure. Nicky and I witnessed beautiful sacred moments in Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, and Jaipur, but then we also witnessed profane moments.

The visit to Amer village in Jaipur was the most memorable one for me. I got to see real hospitality. The villagers were friendly and helpful, and never demanded a fee of us entering the mosque, temples and other interesting sites. We were not even charged for taking photographs. It makes one wanted to give more to the community. If I could change my itinerary, I would stay at Amer village and spend more time at Amber Fort.

IMG_9903For Nicky, as much as he adores Taj Mahal, he loves Fatehpur Sikri the most. The architecture of the building has its own unique character, and he also loves the locals visiting the place. People were warm, friendly, chatty and full of smiles. A big happy family offered us snacks which were delicious.

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Lovely big family at Fatehpur Sikri

India was crowded and humid. It was impossible to walk down the street without beggars and gauntlet of traders running after you. The traffic was terrible. The Tuk Tuk drivers weaved in and out so recklessly, waiting for an accident to happen. And most places were sadly, too dirty. The cow is worshiped in India, but I sighed watching the cows and pigs eating litters together.

Being a seasoned traveler, I was prepared for the possibility of getting scammed. But it turned out that no matter how prepared we are, there will always be a way that we can get screwed over. Sometimes we have the innate tendency to trust others and never suspect the hidden agendas. People trying to take advantage of you everywhere in the world but in India, they tried by every means.  It was an incredibly exhausting way of travel.

IMG_9879Nicky loves historical sites and worship places and thinks that India is fascinating and magical. When he told me that he wishes to visit again and we might stay three to four weeks to really enjoy India, I was like, “What!!!???”

IMG_9490Interesting Places Visited:

  • Agra Red Fort – Rs550 (SGD12)
  • Agra Baby Taj (Idmat-Ud-Daula) – Rs210 (SGD5)
  • Agra Methtab Bagh (Garden) – Rs100 (SGD2)
  • Agra Taj Mahal – Rs1000 (SGD22)
  • Fatehpur Sikri – Rs500 (SGD11)
  • Jaipur Abhaneri Chand Baori (donation fee)
  • Jaipur City Palace – Rs350 (SGD8)
  • Jaipur Amber Fort – Rs500 (SGD11)
  • Jaipur Jal Mahal Lake Palace – Free
  • Jaipur Amer Village – Free (wonderful people)
  • Jaipur Galta Ji (Monkey Temple) – Free (expect touts)
  • Jaipur Johri Bazaar (shopping)

IMG_9060 - Version 2Expenses:

  • Indian Visa for Singaporean – USD25 (SGD35)
  • Taxi Delhi to Agra – Rs5,000 (SGD110)
  • Taxi Agra to Jaipur en route Fatehpur Sikri – Rs5,000 (SGD110)
  • Transportation plus entry fees for cars within the cities – SGD80
  • Entrance fees to monuments and interesting sites and tips/ donations – SGD100
  • Accommodation and food – SGD200

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TIPS:

  • For those require Indian visa, do apply online e-visa via the High Commission of India in Singapore (hcisingapore.gov.in). As per the website, “Please beware of fake websites offering Indian Visa/e-Tourist Visa related services on behalf of Government of India”.
  • Hiring a good legit Guide in India whenever possible – The guides can help in explaining the details of the monuments, assist in navigating the crowds and hordes of people trying to sell things, and can be your photographer.
  • Consume a lot of mineral waters, and avoid street food if possible.
  • There are many tourist scams in India. Beware. Google is your friend.
  • Check the price of tickets online and on the notice board at the entrance. Some staff tries to overcharge, whenever they can.
  • Take small notes with you. Some staff pretended they do not have enough change, some giving lesser change. One even said, “Collect your change when you exit.” Do count your change carefully, and be firm with them.
  • Be extra careful when taking photographs. Even taking a photo of an old tree requires a fee.
  • In the New Delhi airport, beware of staff taking your luggage to the counter, they demanded tips.
  • In the New Delhi airport at this beautiful souvenir+massage shop call ‘Ishana’. Ask for the currency exchange rate (if you are paying using home currency). Calculate. Demand for receipts. Personal experience – the cashiers try to cheat whenever possible.
  • Use Uber taxi in India for reasonable rates. Our fares city to Amber Fort was Rs160 (one way – about 15km). Tuk Tuk driver asked for Rs300.

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Vietnam – Hanoi

Continuation from Nicola’s Journey Back to Italy – Halong Bay, Vietnam

Chapter 1: Vietnam

Episode 3: Hanoi, Vietnam

When we arrived at 5.30am at Oriental Central Hotel, the door was locked. We sat outside of the hotel with our luggage, chasing mosquitoes away, until about an hour later when a staff reported to work and opened the door. We sneaked in and stored our luggage inside.

IMG_6909As we were unable to check in, we walked to the center of Hanoi near the Hoan Kiem Lake. The place was pretty and lively with people exercising everywhere. Cyclists, Joggers, Dancers, Aerobic lovers, and Tai Chi experts – you name it, they were up very early in the morning. It was an interesting scene. We joined the dancing group and danced our way. It was fun.

In Singapore, the first thing we do waking up is thinking what to have for breakfast. At least that’s what I think lol. Meanwhile, in Hanoi, we can see that the locals really enjoy exercising. I wish I could have the same discipline. As we all know, keeping fit and eating healthily is important to live life to the fullest.

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IMG_6896We walked around the lake and had breakfast at one of the restaurants. Nicky was excited when he found croissants on the menu, he loves croissants. The cappuccino was nice, but not the croissant. It was too dry with weird aromas. After our breakfast, we walked back to the hotel, which is in the heart of Old Quarter.

Oriental Central Hotel is a good boutique hotel. It is located close to the Hoan Kiem Lake, Opera House, night market, shops, and restaurant. The staff was friendly, always smiling, and helpful. However, this small property does not open 24 hours, and not all staff can speak good English. We encountered some miscommunication during our stay.

IMG_7362After checking in and freshened up, we walked back to the Hoan Kiem Lake and crossed the Huc Bridge to visit Ngoc Son Temple, which is located on a small island in the middle of the lake.

We then spent the whole day at the Old Quarter walking the streets just looking and soaking up, and immersed in the cultural experience. There were lots going on. We enjoyed looking at the beautiful old buildings, vintage stores, and authentic shops. The simplicity of life makes Vietnam so interesting. It felt like stepping back into the past.

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When we arrived Hanoi from Halong Bay, we explored the night market. There were loads of ornaments, clothes, souvenirs, and street foods. Prices were cheaper than the store and the sellers did not hassle tourists. The street food looks inviting and the whole concept of sitting outside restaurants with low seating chairs and small tables were simply amazing.

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The next morning, we were strolling along the west lake, when we stumbled upon Den Quan Thanh Temple. It is a small ancient temple with very picturesque old style Viet gate. In the courtyard, there were several people practicing martial arts.

Outside the temple, we took motorbike taxis to bring us to our next destination, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh District. There was a super long queue to pay homage to the Communist leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Although Singaporeans are known for being ‘kiasu’, like to queueing up for everything ahead of time, I am not one of them. Queueing up drives me crazy. After taking a few photography shots of the vicinity, we went to the Temple of Literature.

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The Temple of Literature was the site of the first university and the shrine to Confucius. The buildings of traditional Vietnamese architecture are well preserved. During our visit, there were a few group of students attended the prayer for their graduation ceremony.

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Hao Lo Prison (Maison Centrale) was the last stop for the motorbike taxis. I was not keen to visit prison but Nicky thought it would be interesting. Having been to Alcatraz island in San Francisco, USA, and learning about the prisoner’s traumatic experiences, prison visits are never on my travel list.

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Hao Lo Prison was built by the French colonial government in 1880’s. It was supposed to house 500 inmates but when French was defeated in 1950’s, there were about 2,000 prisoners held. Imagine their state of living; overcrowding, brutality, grief, and suffering.

Hoa Lo Prison has played a significant part in Vietnam’s history, both in the French colonial period and during the war with the United States of America.

During the Vietnam War in the year 1967, USA Senator John McCain narrowly escaped death. His jet was shot down over Hanoi and he was badly injured. He endured five and a half years as a prisoner of war (POW). Senator John McCain pilot suit and parachute were displayed among the items exhibited in the museum.

Unlike Alcatraz, there isn’t much to see in this “Hanoi Hilton”. The museum is quite tiny but the little things they exhibited with historical artifacts and photos were interesting.  My chest felt heavy walking around, always felt this way when visited a place of misery. I told Nicky it’s time to leave.

IMG_7584We thought of watching water puppet or opera that evening but missed the show-time. So, we just walking around and getting lost, wandering the streets of Hanoi. We found many hidden beautiful and unique cafes. The two we stumbled upon was Café Pho Co and Café Nola. The place was so charming.

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IMG_6113 - Version 2Hanoi is an interesting city and we find it fascinating. We enjoyed the walks, the wonderful old buildings, architecture, the hustle and bustle of the street life, monuments, and the people. The food was delicious and varied, and the place has a wonderful vibe to it.

IMG_0823Interesting Places Visited:

  • Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son – wonderful, multiple visits to include early mornings
  • Hoa Chi Minh Mausoleum – long queue, only for those with patience and patriotism
  • Temple of Literature – nice ambiance
  • Hoa Lo Prison Museum – small but interesting
  • Hanoi Old Quarter – wonderful experience
  • Quan Thanh Temple – nice ambiance

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Travel Advice (notes from the hotels):

  • Beware of scams in Vietnam (we did not encounter this)
  • Do not touch anything if you do not want to buy it
  • Do not talk or smile to vendors if you do not want to buy anything
  • Be relaxed and confident crossing the road
  • Check the item(s) carefully before buying
  • Should not walk alone on the street after 11 pm
  • Be careful using your cell phone when on the street
  • Beware of pickpockets

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