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EXPLORING INDIA : From Kaziranga to the Himalayas to the desert of Jaisalmer to the backwaters of Allepey to the sun baked coral beaches of Lakshadweep....A first hand account of exploring this beautiful country.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Flow of Foreign Tourists to North East States on Upward Trend: Tourism Ministry


Good news for tourism industry in North East. The tremndous potential had not been harnessed because of political and social unrests in last decade. The flow of foreign tourists to the northeastern states has been on an upward trend since 2011 and the growth rate in 2013 was more than double compared to 2012, according to Tourism Ministry data.

A jump of 12.5 per cent was registered in foreign tourist visits (FTVs) to the northeast in 2012 as against 2011, which further rose by more than 100 per cent to register a growth of 27.9 per cent during 2013 in comparison to 2012, the data states. There were a total of 58,920 FTVs to the northeastern states in 2011 with the figure going up to 66,302 in 2012. That number further increased to 84,820 in 2013.

In Assam, there were 16,400 FTVs in 2011 and the number rose to 17,543 in 2012. The following year, 2013, saw the figure rise to 17,638. According to the data, Sikkim drew 31,698 FTVs in 2013 as against 26,489 in 2012. There were 23,602 FTVs in Sikkim in 2011.
(Source : PTI)

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Saturday, August 09, 2014

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi : The monk and his pet


A visit to the famed Tiger Temple at Kanchanaburi in Thailand was on the top of my activity list for the Bangkok stopover. I have been extremely lucky to witness many tigers in the Indian wilderness as part of my photography trips. This trip promised to offer chances to actually touch a live tiger. Scanning the itineraries on offer, I found several iterations combining upto 4 attractions on the way. I zeroed down to a combination that would offer me maximum time at the tiger temple. After all, how often do you get a chance to pet full grown tigers.

The monk and his pet
Excitement was high as we got ready before dawn breaks. As we walked into the hotel lobby, I thanked God for the promise of a clear day. We were picked up from hotel at 6:30 am. There were four of us. A British lady joined us from another hotel. We were now 5 in a van that could carry 10+ people. Thus the trip turned out to be almost a private trip at the cost of a group tour. October is kind of shoulder season in Thailand with occasional rain. One day of my week long trip in October was spoiled by rain. Peak tourist season starts from November onwards after the rains. I generally prefer travelling in shoulder season, just days before peak season starts. This way you not only beat the mad rush of peak season, but also get very good bargains for everything from hotel to sightseeing.

As our van zipped through empty streets of Bangkok, we went past many city landmarks like the king’s palace, military HQ, UN office etc. Soon we were on an elevated expressway. The distance to Kanchanaburi is about 180km and travel time is around 3 hours. At around 10:30am we reached the first attraction en-route – the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery commemorating the allied soldiers of WW II. As we stepped out of the van, a young lady selling souvenirs approached us. As we politely said no, she acknowledged and went back. This is quite in contrast to what we get to see back home. The hawkers and sellers will push to the brink of becoming rude and then and while going away he will return you back some of the complements you had mouthed.

The next stop was the JEATH War Museum. JEATH stands for Japan, England, America and Australia, and Thailand. It is a small place with a replica thatched house used to house the prisoners during WW II that were used to construct the death railway. It also has some war memorabilia. Tourists are given the option to go to the next stopover – the bridge over river Kwae by a long tail speed boat. The cost of 200 THB did not appeal to us and hence we continued by the van. Being shoulder season, the bridge and the adjoining railway station was only sparsely crowded. We walked down the bridge soaking in some history. The original wooden bridge was destroyed during allied bombing. The current steel bridge was built alongside it. Some tourists wait for the train from Bangkok to arrive. The scheduled arrival is 1130 am, but the train often gets delayed by couple of hours. We decided not to waste time and headed for lunch at a floating houseboat nearby. Lunch was included in the package.

Post lunch, we drove for another 45 min through green countryside to reach the monastery which is also called the tiger temple. We were slightly ahead of scheduled opening hours of 1230 pm. Ticket cost of 600 THB was included in package cost. As the gates were opened, several tigers were taken out of their enclosures by volunteers and staff. Guests were allowed to proceed through a different alley. As we had reached the designated spot, tigers had also started arriving. Laces were pegged to the ground. It was obvious that they can easily get off those plugs if they try to. Guests were given safety briefing by an international volunteer. However tamed the tigers may look; they had wild instincts in their genes. Post safety briefing in English by some European volunteers, we were allowed some photo opportunities with the tigers under supervision of volunteers. The moment of touching and petting the first tiger got etched in our mind forever. As the crowds were very thin, barely 50 odd, we had good time to with several different tigers. There were around 12 tigers of different ages. The tigers and the monks share a special bond. For the monks, the big cat was no more than your house cat. As and when the monk sat by a tiger, it would invariably crawl onto his lap, and doze off. There has been allegation of tigers being drugged. It had already been proved wrong (Read here). There also has been controversis regarding animal rights violations. Mulnutrition is an issue became evident to me as well. Despite all these, number of tigers around the world is decresing while it is increasing here. 

Me walking a tiger with the monk was a moment to remember
My personal observation was that these tigers simply replicated the behavior of tigers in the wild. I have seen more than 30 tigers in different jungles of India. Tigers generally sleeps entire day and is active all through night. In the wild, tiger sighting occurs either early morning or late afternoon when they generally move. Thus tigers dozing off when taken out on a hot humid afternoon are quite normal. The comments of ‘drugged tigers’ are apparently made by uninformed tourists who expects a tiger to keep displaying antics all through the day. The monastery has around 125 tigers (as claimed). Only a few of the docile ones are taken out for tourist interaction. These tigers were born in the monastery and have become used to humans. But one should never forget the wild instincts in their genes. These tigers are fed on chicken. The monastery is using the gate fees to buy food and build an island home for the tigers so that they can be freed from cages. But this money collected did not appear enough, especially in the lean season I visited. They started with one tigers, but now have the problem of aplenty. Chicken fed tigers do not look as strong as those in wild. Rather than clamoring about ethics, drugging, money making, etc., effort should directed towards rehabilitating some of these tigers.

As the time went by, a sizeable crowd had arrived. It was around 2:30 pm when tigers were to be taken to the canyon waterfall. Tigers love water in summer. Guests were divided into small groups of 15-20 each and were offered to walk the tiger down to the canyon, each guest holding the lace for couple of minutes. That was another moment of significance. Twice that afternoon, for couple of minute each, a full grown tiger was my personal pet. I was elated as one of the revered monk joined for a minute for the walk. As we had arrived at the canyon, we waited for other tigers to arrive. At the canyon, tourists were provided another opportunity to get photographed with almost all the tigers on display. For the late comers, this was their only opportunity. For us it was one more opportunity. We did not realize how three and half hours flew past. The moments got etched in our mind for ever. It was hard to believe that we had touched so many tigers. The volunteers captured the moments for us in my camera. Not to take any chances with photos, I put the camera into manual mode with continuous shooting and set parameters that would give me acceptable result. In auto mode, half of the photos would have been shaky or out of focus or badly exposed.

A male tiger being lead to the canyon

As we left the place with fond memories, we could see some vehicles arriving. I pity for those late comers. This was bad planning. They may miss all chances to pet a tiger as 3:30 pm is the last time for visitors. If you include floating market with river Kwae and Tiger Temple, then this is most likely to happen. Therefore after a careful study of the packages on offer, I decided to opt only for River Kwae with Tiger Temple. On the way back we were dropped at the Gems Factory en-route. This is the same company which has an outlet at Phuket. We had nothing to buy from their stock of over priced stones. Buying stone was never on our agenda. Indians do not buy stones without consulting astrologers. The guide probably gets some incentive just by dropping off the guest. We could have avoided it, but the guide Kate had been nice and hence agreed for the stopover. The gem factory arranges the drop off to the hotel irrespective of whether you buy something or not. If you stop at Gems factory, then make sure not to leave anything in the vehicle you have been travelling all day. That vehicle will leave after dropping you at the factory and you will be dropped off at the hotel by another vehicle / taxi arranged by the Gems factory. I had a shocker of experience on this at Phuket when I left my spare camera bag on the vehcile that dropped us at the Gem Factory. That vehcile alongwith the guide left after dropping us  which I realised only after coming out. I called up the agency and the guide and were lucky to get my bag by evening with all content. Your guide will generally ensure that you have a smooth passage to your hotel. This being a long trip, almost 12 hrs with 400 km road travel, you will be tired to do anything else for the day. Enjoy Bangkok night recalling your trysts with the tigers.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 7:21 PM | 4 comments

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Handling RAW files : Canon DPP or Adobe Camera RAW


Photography is my first passion. Travel complements my photography. My favorite genre is wildlife photography which made me spend lot of time in various jungles of India. As I had started writing about my photographic journey and shared it on my facebook page (Rupankar Mahanta Photography), I felt that sharing it on my blog will connect to a different sets of readers. Following is excerpt from the first article I am sharing here :

Handling RAW files : Canon DPP or Adobe Camera RAW

As I was transiting from flim SLR to digital technology, I acquired a Canon A540 which was a prosumer point and shoot model with full manual control. It was one of the best pocket cameras I had ever owned, much better than the pricier Canon IXUS 120IS which I bought couple of years later as replacement. Being a point and shoot, it could capture only in JPEG format. I hope jpeg do not sound too esoteric here. It stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group and is a commonly used method of LOSSY compression for storing digital images. Read the word LOSSY which actually means what it is. When an image is saved as jpeg some original image information is lost and cannot be restored, possibly affecting image quality. However I was not bothered at all about this then as I had no other options. As I went on to acquire a DSLR, starting with AUTO mode and continued with JPEG for some time. As my understanding of digital photography expanded, I found that technically JPEG is not the ideal form for a photographer. So what to do? Shoot RAW was the ubiquitous advice on net.

Everything has a learning curve. JPEG continued through my transition from the AUTO mode to Av (Aperture Priority). Those days I was not a wildlife photographer and hence never used Tv (Shutter priority) mode.  After couple of months of study I solved the conundrum of RAW. Since then I have been shooting in RAW. There is no loss of data in RAW format images. Almost immediately I was offered with another riddle –what colour space. Digital photography had become too technical!

Leaving aside the subject of colour space for another day, let me continue with handling of RAW files...........................

Here is link to the full article -

Handling RAW files : Canon DPP or Adobe Camera RAW


posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 10:04 PM | 8 comments

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Gentle giants of Corbett grasslands


This April, I was on my second visit this year to Corbett National Park. This place is heaven for wildlife photographers. I can keep going there whenever time and finances permit. This visit was special because of the conglomeration of almost 50 fellow photographers as part of the Canon Wild Click Season-V. Major part of the event was hosted at the Infinity Resort at Dhikuli with nature trails along the Kosi river at both Dhikuli and Mohan, and also at Sitabani range under Ramnagar forest division. The event was organised by Nature Wanderers and was sponsored by Canon India, Sanctuary Asia, WIldcraft. The Forest Deptt of Uttarakhand also extended its support to the event allowing access. Part of the event was conducted at Dhikala with one night stay and 3 safaris at the Dhikala range.

The participants were required to shoot photos for 5 themes and submit 1 photo in each category. It was evident that subjects for some of the themes were to be found either in the nature trail or in the sprawling Infinity campus and subjects for some of the themes were to be found either in the saal forests or grasslands of Dhikala.

As we had entered into Dhikala zone very early into the second morning, the sweet smell of the  saal forest greeted us. The vehicles moved in such a way to avoid a convoy.  Most of the roads wore a carpet of falls leaves resembling a mauve carpet stretched as far as you can see. We took the detour via the deep forest road to Gairal. En-route, we had one of the best moments of the trip when a small group of elephants crossed the main road giving us opportunity to shoot them with classic background of saal forest of Corbett.

The second safari post lunch was fantastic. We were warned about not to run after tigers because of the danger of ending up the day without any photo to show. It was prime time for elephants. We were advised to reach the grassland, known as chaur, in search of pachyderm by 3 pm. I took a trip a trip in March expecting to shoot elephants. But because of an extended winter the herds were yet to arrive. As the news of arrival of elephants is confirmed, I got excited. And what an evening it turned out to be.  We could shoot elephants from as close as 15 feet. The herd had been very patient and enjoyed being photographed by another herd of photographers. By the end of the day, almost all us had some dream shots of elephants. I had elephants in the river, having mud bath, tossing up grass, display of emotions, group dynamics, etc. This was an evening not to forget for a lifetime.

Back at the Infinity resort, we got involved in the race against time of the event. This edition of wild click was won by young Daanish Shastri. I am happy to have made some fantastic images over those 3 days for my collection. As usual made some new friends from different parts of India. Looking forward to going back again to Corbett in June this year before the park closes for monsoon.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 10:36 PM | 1 comments

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kaziranga - the original land of one horned rhinos


My last visit to Kaziranga, the original abode of one horned Indian rhinos, was well before I started wildlife photography. This is where I shoot my first wildlife photo. It was in 2003 when I was posted at Sivasagar, some 150km further east of Kaziranga. I was just a novice in photography then, but is heavily into wildlife photography now. I had a film SLR then, and now have a 5D III and 60D. Therefore this trip to one of the finest jungle of India was special.

The flash airfare sale of Feb came as an opportunity for an unplanned visit my hometown Guwahati after my daughter’s exams are over in March at unbelievably low fares. Normally I visit my hometown either in May-June or October when Kaziranga remains closed. Thus I have been missing opportunity to visit Kaziranga since I got transferred to Delhi. But this visit happening in March, and also the fact that the park would remain open, I squeezed in a one day visit to Kaziranga out of a hectic schedule. The 240 km road from Guwahati to Kaziranga via NH37 is in excellent condition this year as the tar is newly laid. As we had started early in the morning, it took us 4 hrs to reach our resort at Bagori. The Nature Hunt Eco Camp, our abode, is a small facility with 3 huts and 1 dormitory. All huts are made of bamboo and other natural materials to give you an ethnic feel. The campus had decent green cover and a small captive tea plantation. The location is about 4km from the Kohora junction on NH37. As I had a vehicle at my disposal, I did not opt for the lunch (grossly overpriced) at the resort.

Post a sumptuous traditional lunch at the Maihong Restaurant close to the Kohora gate, we proceeded to the safari booking office. The office is located about 1km from the Kohora junction on NH37. You can book jeep and elephant safari for the central range at this office. The Central range, also known as the Kohora range, is the most popular with tourist because most of the hotels / resorts are located within a radius of 4 -5km from here. There are two other ranges viz. Bagori and Agratoli. If you are travelling from Guwahati, then Bagori is about 10km short of Kohora while Agratoli is about 20km further east towards Dibrugarh. Each of these three ranges has slightly different landscape and hence its unique appeal. Central range gives an overall feel of Kaziranga. For general information, the park remains opens from November to around second week of April. It can close anytime after second week of April because of rain. Assam generally receives excessive rainfall.

Jeep safaris can be booked on the spot and jeeps are available at the booking office. I never saw any mad rush for booking and one can do it on his own without any hassles. Rates for gypsy are fixed by the union. This eliminates bargaining or possibility of getting cheated. If you do not have a vehicle at your disposal then you can opt for safaris through the resort. They tend to charge 200-300 extra which is quite nominal. It is advisable to get gypsy from your hotel for Agratoli ( Eastern range). I did not find any gypsy waiting there. The only resort at Agratoli has a gypsy, but they may be already booked.

We had our first safari in the afternoon at the Central range. Safari is generally along an elevated road with swamp, wetland or tall elephant grass on either side of the road. Game viewing is through open patches along this trail. Kaziranga is about rhinos and you will get to see rhinos against fantastic backdrops which are photographers delight. Other common species are elephants, water buffalos, swamp deer and hog deer. The jungle is generally very colourful. By end March, the dry elephant grass are set on controlled fire to let new grass grow after rains. Because of this clearing of grasses, you tend to get a better view. Thus March end – April beginning is the best time to visit the park.
Rainfall in Assam has been scanty this year. Compare this to the unseasonal rains in Delhi all though Feb and March. Climate is changing for sure. The afternoon drive at central range was quite dusty. Fortunately it had rained that evening, leaving us with a clear sky next morning. Drive into the park during peak animal activity hours of early morning and late evening is not allowed. It gets dawns (in March) by 5am. But park entry is allowed after 7 am which is well past prime wildlife hours. However elephant safari at Kohora range is allowed between 5 to 7 am. As this safari is conducted along the periphery of the forest, and also the fact that I had done this once earlier, I decided to skip this popular touristy activity in favour of another jeep safari. I had the choice of going to either Bagori or Agaratoli. After discussing with the resort staff, and also because of the invitation of my friend Bhaskar Baruah, who runs the only resort at Agratoli, I decided to visit the Agratoli range. This range is known to be good for birding. Bhaskar told me that Kohora range is for tourists, but Agratoli range is for photographers. The range is about 20km from Kohora of which around 16km is along NH37 and then a bumpy 4kms ride through a tribal village. On this stretch you get a glimpse of the Missing tribe style of living in plat-formed houses, locally called chang-ghar. During rainy reason, these areas often get inundated.

As we had reached Agratoli forest office, we found few foreigners and a lone Indian tourist (apparently a birder / photographer), in all max 6 gypsy. This indeed turned out to be one for connoisseurs. We had good number of bird sighting alongwith one very close range rhino sighting. This range is the only range where tourist can reach the bank of mighty Brahmaputra, and actually go down the bank to touch the river. The landscape is altogether different from central. The total distance of safari route at Agratoli is about 33km as against 25 odd KM of central and further smaller Bagori range. However a fair part of the route passes through open stretches without any tree cover and hence you require good sun protection.

We had two very productive safaris. Bagori range had to be left out in this visit due to paucity of time. On our return we came to know about the sad incident two rhino poaching that had occurred during past 24 hrs. Poaching rhinos for horns has taken an ugly turn with alarming rise in incidences this year. Lack of political will, changing demographics, rampant encroachment by illegal Bangladeshis which gets patronized by ruling political party for vote bank politics, are some of the reasons for increase in poaching incidences. Now the Govt is planning de-horning of rhinos which are objected to by all concerned. Hope the majestic beast who had survived since prehistoric times will survive this human onslaught.

Safari cost:

The applicable safari rates for as on March 2014 :
Jeep / Gyspy charges (as published by the local owners union):
Central range – Rs.1500/-
Western range – Rs.1600/- (Rs.1300/- if you hire vehicle at Bagori office)
Eastern range – Rs.2000/-

Entry fee :
Per person : Rs.50/-
Per vehicle : Rs.300/-
Guard fee : Rs.100/- per vehicle
Camera fee : Rs.50/- per camera

The cost for 4 adults is about Rs.2200/- per safari. Mid sized taxis like Dzire or Indigo are available from Guwahati at about 1500 per day + Rs.6 per km. So plan your visit to one of the finest jungle of India.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 7:59 PM | 7 comments

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