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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, March 30, 2012

Singapore and Malaysia : Should you be on a package your or not

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A package suits the tourist, not the traveler. Packages seriously restrict one’s mobility. Travelling on your own gives you the tremendous flexibility of having your own schedule and visit all places you want to visit. 99% of my travel in India has been without any package and had not faced any problem. Thus I decided to take this experiment a step further on my first family vacation abroad. This article is the first on the series about my 9 day trip covering Singapore and Malaysia without any package.

Cost Benefit : What you do not get in a package

Business district at night
If you think that travelling on your own would be cheaper, then you are probably wrong. The cost would roughly be the same which you pay for a regular tour package. But on your own can cover almost everything ‘must visit’, and may be even squeeze an additional night. That’s why its great value for every rupee you spend..

I had covered Singapore (4N 4D), Langkawi (2N 3D) and KL (2N 2D). The all inclusive cost per head was almost Rs.40K (in Oct, 2010). No package would offer you 8 N 9 D or one that include Langkawi at this price. What you normally get around 45K is 3N Singapore, 2N KL and 2N Genting. While Lakngawi is about an hour’s flight from KL, Genting is just couple of hours drive from KL. Whereas all my internal travel was by air.

For local sightseeing at Singapore, the packages will hand you the basic ticket of Hippo Ho-Ho bus ticket. It generally does not include Singapore Flyer ticket. We bought package ticket of Hippo which included Flyer ticket costing about S$30 per head.

Trip to Sentosa is included in most packages. The rides and shows offered in Sentosa in a package are cleverly bundled. They include all cheap and free shows, e.g., Song of the Sea @S$10 is the cheapest show. Similarly Dolphin show is part of Underwater World ticket. There are numerous options of ticketing available at Sentosa. Tourists are normally ferried to Sentosa by bus which is the cheapest mode of going to Sentosa. Next best is the Sentosa Express train that operates from Vivo City mall. But we went their by the best possible way – the Jewel Box cable car. As this starts from the popular Vivo City mall, one could spend time in the mall. The Sky Park located on 3rd floor is a very good spot to spend some time and enjoy the nice breeze with the magnificent view it offers.

Most packages do not offer you trip to Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. This is one must see attraction. This is because going to Jurong involves separate transportation. The Zoo and Night Safari are at same place and hence no transportation is involved between these two.

So what additional items we got by spending almost the same amount: At least 1 extra night, Jurong Bird Park, To and fro cable car ride to Sentosa, experience local flavour with MRT travel, saw the Merlion both in daylight and at night, visited the Opera house and witnessed a performance, walked along the boat quay and Clark’s quay, had food of choice at Indian restaurants (not buffet meals) ….actually the list goes on and on. So you decide.

How you plan :

1)  When you are travelling on your own, you need to plan well in advance. Keep looking for cheap offers by airlines like Air Asia. Once you book India – KL and back tickets, plan other segments of travel and keep booking tickets periodically so that you do not feel the load on your pocket. You will be able to space out your expenditure on ticket this way. Book all tickets prior to 3 months of travel date to get best deal.
2)  Start booking hotels at least up to a month before arrival. This can also be done periodically. It is always better to book directly with the hotel.
3) My suggestion here is to compare price with various sites like Agoda, Hotels Combined, etc. Options are unlimited. Shortlist the hotels depending on what you are willing to pay. Read about them Tripadvisor. Then compare the prices with hotel’s own website. Book wherever you find it cheapest. Sometimes it is cheaper on sites like Agoda while on other occasion’s hotel’s direct site may turn out to be cheaper. An advice: if hotel is very cheap at Singapore, it may be located at a red light area. So be careful.
4)  Visa : Apply at least 15 days before departure. I found that the best deal in Delhi is provided by Riya Travels which is an authorized / approved agent by Malaysia and Singapore High Commission. For Malaysia visa they charged Rs.850/- as against Rs.1200/- by Thomas Cook or Cox & Kings. The bigger the name of the travel agency, the more you pay.
5)  Forex : Riya Travels offers good rate. You can also do your research with various agencies. But bigger the name of the operator, the costlier the forex will be. Infinity Centrum also offers good rate. I got my forex from Centrum. Get your forex at least 48 hours before departure. Carry only the amount you need. Otherwise, you will loose a couple of thousand rupees only in exchanging unused currency. You can always safely carry USD and make sure to carry only bigger notes like 100 or 50 dollars as they gets you best exchange rate.
6)  Do your research of the places you will be visiting. Download maps. Make your own schedule of sightseeing. Always keep a plan B ready.

Get, Set, Go :

Despite all these I had butterflies in tummy on landing at Singapore. On an alien place, with family in tow, I had a few anxious moments once I got out of the airport. Got into a taxi for Little India. Barely a couple of hours down the line I was so much at ease, as if I was travelling somewhere in Delhi.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Packing bags for Bandhavgarh

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Returning to one of my new favorite location - Bandhavgarh almost after a year. Hoping to meet those majestic tigers again. Learnt that a new tiger named Mukunda male has joined the scene. Actions at Tala has shifted to Magadhi a bit. Will be taking 4 safaris - two at Tala and one each at Magadhi and Khitauli. During my last trip all safaris were at Tala. This time I will get to cover other ranges as well. Stay is booked with Green Woods resort. The trip was planned well in advance to take benefit of the long weekend ahead (5-8 April). It must be a mad rush for tickets now.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Havelock : Ultimate Andaman Experience Part-II

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The main reason of  my trip to Andaman was to have an island holiday. Imagine something like lying by a serene turquoise sea, sip in a beer, occasionally have a swim and then relax. Port Blair offers none of these. Havelock has all that an island of your dream should have. Thus I had planned a 3 nights stay at Havelock. An extra day was meant to lie and relax on sun baked white sand beaches.  

Havelock is the ultimate Andaman. Most foreign tourist was seen heading straight to Havelock from airport. On my next trip I will not waste my time at Port Blair. Rather I would head straight to Havelock. My suggestion is to try and book your ferry ticket yourself. Booking counter is at the Phoenix Bay Jetty. It is like a railway reservation counter. Booking starts 3 days in advance. At least 3 Govt ferry plies daily between Port Blair and Havelock. There also is a private ferry named Makruz. The one way ticket price as in Jan 2012 was Rs.250/- for the Govt ferry. As I had booked it through hotel, they charged me Rs.400/-. The fare of Makruz was around Rs.800/-. Thus you would appreciate the value of taking pain to visit the jetty and book ticket yourself, specially if you are in a large group. The trip generally takes about 2 ½ hours. I found that the Govt ferry leaves at 6:30am, one at 11:30am and another at 2pm. Privately owned Markuz leaves at around 9am.

I had stayed at Eco Villa at Havelock on Beach no.3. This beach is a bit rocky. They are actually dead corals. However the place was decent. I found that resorts on beach no.5 are better because beaches there are not rocky. You get accommodation from 300 to 3000 - fitting almost any budget. Almost all of them are bamboo hut made out of natural materials. As on Jan, 2012, there are about 45 resorts. Almost all of them are located along the beaches, which mean each one has its pie of a small private beach. Exception to this is Hotel Kingdom Place, Hotel Sourav and Jungle View Nest, which are not on the beaches. If you are on a package, ask your agency about the hotel. A bad choice will end up you repenting your entire stay at Havelock.

Sightseeing activities can be arranged by your resort. Rates are generally fixed. If you do all activities with one agency, then you get a better deal. My auto driver offered me rates, which when I compared with the resort rates found almost the same. It is always better to have a second quote to ensure that you are not overcharged. Both rates being same, I decided to go with the auto driver Sanika as I liked his behavior. He was the only one who did not try to fleece us on the trip from jetty to hotel. So I did all activities through him.

Activities at Havelock :

1)  Kaala Pathar beach : It got its name from some of the rocks in that area. A beautiful beach with very little crowd. Go there in the morning and relax on the beach till noon. The sea is relatively calm at this place. You need to find stretches without stones. There are plenty of such stretches. Our cab had dropped us there around 9am and picked us up again at around 12 noon.
2) Radhangar beach : This is beach no 7. Touted as one of the best beaches of Asia, this certainly stands upto that billing. A wide and long white sandy beach with nice waves make it a beautiful place. There always is a decent crowd there. We have been there twice. An evening trip will allow you enjoy beautiful sunset.
3) Elephant beach : We went there for a snorkeling trip. A 30min speed boat ride will take you there. A big signboard warning you of crocodile will welcome you to this place. We got to know that in 2011, a foreign tourist was killed here by croc. Despite the risk, this is a beautiful serene beach. This is a very calm beach, ideal for snorkeling. We had our first snorkeling experience here. I feel it is safe as long as you stay within the area where snorkeling is done. Venturing out of the crowd may be riskier. A typical trip cost about Rs.2500/-
4) Diving : Along with snorkeling, diving is a popular activity. While snorkeling can be done by almost all, diving is not for all. It is costlier as well. Most resort offer diving. We did not try it. A typical single dive would cost you about Rs.3500/-.
5)  Fishing : If you have time and money to splurge, then this is one activity you can do. A trip of about 2 hours cost about Rs.3000/-.
6) Relaxing : The best activity at Havelock. Be lazy. Just sit in the chairs kept at the garden of your resort, sip in a beer, watch the waves and soak in the moments. This is what Havelock is sought after.

A typical Andaman package offers you a single night or two nights’ stay at Havelock and would include a trip to Radhanagar beach. All other activity mentioned above is to be undertaken at your own cost. Meals are costlier at Havelock as compared to Port Blair. Resorts generally do not offer stay with full board (AP) plans. Havelock is a non-vegetarians delight. The choices of sea food will long you to stay longer.

Local transport includes a few buses that ply between the jetty and Radhanagar beach. Most common mode of transport is auto ricksaw. Be prepared to be overcharged for your trips. They generally have fixed rates for trips to Radhanagar or Kalpathar or Elepahant beach. You can also get bi-cycles and bikes. Your resort or even the auto-wallah can arrange this for you. Bike is not a very cheap option @300/- per day plus petrol @80/- per liter, but gives you flexibility if you are a couple.

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