December 27, 2013

Kanchanaburi- Reminiscences of World War II...!!

Kanchanaburi is soaked in history with its prominence in world war II. The attack of the Japanese during the war has left deep marks on the city. Also disheartening are the stories of American soldiers who were tortured to death here. More than seven hundred American servicemen were moved to Thailand and Burma, as prisoners of war of the Japanese during world war II. They were interned in prison camps and were forced to work on the Thailand- Burma railway project. The conditions were so inhuman that many perished to malnutrition, physical abuse and various illnesses. Over a period of time, the bridge known as death railway bridge over River Kwai has turned into one of the most sought after tourist destinations in Thailand.

Rail bridge over river Kwai
It was late afternoon as we rode into the town of Kanchanaburi. River Kwai is the cynosure around which the whole of Kanchanaburi revolves. The bridge attracts numerous tourists, both locals and foreigners alike, and many take the toy train that runs over it for a short distance through the day. The break in between the train ride allows people to walk over the bridge and enjoy the beautiful vistas of the flowing Kwai. Though the views and the rail bridge looked quite attractive, what ran through my mind as I walked on it was the sufferings of the prisoners of war. The bridge gets lit up in the evening and the surrounding area turns quite active with road side vendors. The numerous floating restaurants under the bridge also turn brighter as the sun sets. The view of the rising and the setting sun over the river is a delight for the photographers as the sky gets painted in a palate of colours. One can also spot a couple of long boats making its way on the serene waters of Kwai. There is a daily show on the bridge at seven in the evening, enacting the tragedy that happened during the world war II. The show is a must see and attracts numerous visitors for its magnificent portrayal of the hard times with fireworks, sounds and colours.

Toy train
Death rail bridge
River Kwai
Lit up Kanchanaburi
The evening show over the bridge
Fireworks over the bridge
Not very far from the bridge, is a monument erected by the Japanese army during the war, in memory of the personnel of the allied forces who died during the construction of the Thailand- Burma railway. Every year in march, a memorial ceremony for those who died is held by voluntary members of the Japanese community. Another must visit place in Kanchanaburi is the war cemetery. In the cemetery rests three hundred soldiers, who suffered and died during the world war. The cemetery has the names of each soldier with details inscribed on their respective stones. Set amidst a green bed of grass with flowers adjacent to each stone grave, the cemetery has been quite well maintained. Across the road from the cemetery is the Death railway museum and research centre. This museum depicts in detail the happenings of the world war II in Kanchanaburi and the sufferings of the soldiers through videos, audios, writings and much more.

Monument erected by Japanese community
War cemetery

The road that leads to the bridge from the town turns into a colourful, vibrant and glittering market, selling a plethora of things from puppies to electronics to food. I was stunned by the action filled market with exciting displays and thronging crowd as I strolled through the inviting stalls.

The colourful market of Kanchanaburi

Thirty two kilometers from Kanchanaburi lies the famed Tiger temple. It was well known for a long time as a tiger sanctuary, where the stripped cats were taken care by buddhist monks. However, currently they have a voluntary organization that take care of the tigers. People from all over the globe join this organization and do voluntary service. Monks can be seen in the sanctuary, with a couple of them either playing with the tigers or feeding them. We waited for a while as the tigers were led into the park. They looked majestic, gracious and beautiful as they walked down the mud path to the arena where visitors are allowed to be photographed with them. A long list of instructions were laid out to us, before we could get closer to the tigers. This is to make sure that the visitors do not act in any way which might instigate the tigers to charge and injure themselves. The tigers are chained and lie on the ground as they get photographed with people. The few cubs seemed more playful than the relaxed older ones. It is definitely an adrenalin rushing experience as you touch the lovely beast. There are more options like 'walk with the tiger' and 'play with the cub in the waters' for the adventurous ones. There are other animals too like bear, deer and a few birds within the premises along with a buddhist temple.

Tiger temple

The gracious cats
Kanchanaburi is definitely a must visit destination in Thailand with loads of history and an exciting tiger temple. It is not very far from Bangkok and a full day trip would be ideal to do justice to the place.

Signing Note- A scroll back into world war II...!!

Distance- Bangkok to Kanchanaburi (130 Kms) (Route 323)

You may read my co-rider, Shrinidhi's article on Kwai bridge here-

P.S.- I was riding across northern Thailand with Ride Thailand on an invite from Tourism Authority of Thailand.

December 23, 2013

Backwaters of Kerala...!!

It is not without a reason that Kerala is known as God's Own Country. The landscape is bewitchingly beautiful and encapsulating, leaving the travellers and tourists mesmerized. It is not often that hills, beaches,lakes and forests appear geographically so close to each other. But, in Kerala the distances of these landscapes are on the shorter side giving its visitors a plethora of options to explore within their limited travel time. Of these many landscapes, it is the backwaters that stands out astonishingly with its huge network.
With 44 rivers, numerous lakes, more than 1500Kms of water canals, snake boat races, over 300 species of birds and floating markets, what more can you ask for? It is absolutely a water world out there, showcasing the magnificence of Kerala backwaters.

Image courtesy- Kerala Tourism
Image courtesy- Kerala Tourism
Floating away on one of the kettuvelloms (house boats), enjoying the swaying palms, the lovely vistas, the cool breeze and the delicious local food is the best way to explore the backwaters. Get on to one of the small boats and row away through the small canals to some secluded corner enjoying the villages and greenery. Numerous species of birds are seen either perched on branches or gliding over the water bodies. Isn't it exciting to watch the birds flying as you keep floating? The boat races held during the months of July to September are fun and frolic. See the nail biting finishes and hear the ardent fans roar as they cheer their respective teams. The backwaters of Kerala is definitely a must explore. So what you waiting for? Go ahead and float away on those lovely waterscapes.

Image courtesy- Kerala Tourism
Visit for more details.

December 19, 2013

Sukhothai- A UNESCO World Heritage Historical Park...!!

The sun mellowed on a serene evening as we rode into the old world town of Sukhothai, a UNESCO world heritage historical park. The first capital of Thailand, Sukhothai which means 'The dawn of happiness' exudes the charm of the old world with numerous temples, pagodas and buddhist statues. Carpets of green are spread out everywhere with lots of trees and lotus ponds, and amidst all this wonderful landscape stands silently the ruined city of Sukhothai. 

More than 700 years ago, Sukhothai was the capital of  the flourishing Sukhothai kingdom which ruled post the Khmer rule from mid 13th century to mid 15th century. It was under the rule of King Ramkhamhaeng that the kingdom reached its prime. The kingdom did not last for long and lost its power to Ayutthaya kingdom leaving its numerous temples in ruins. 

Wat Mae Chon
Wat Sorasak
It was so peaceful with hardly a clatter from the surroundings. We entered the historical park when the sun was about to set, and the temples and pagodas looked gorgeous as they bathed in the orange light. I was lost amidst the ruined stupas and statues, admiring the grandeur of the wonderful structures and strolled past them in utmost silence. The place does have a lot of serenity imbibed into it and it is quite easy to stare at the huge statues of Lord Buddha in oblivion. The strikingly beautiful reflections of the tall pagodas on the still waters of the ponds were definitely attention grabbers. As the sun went down, the silhouettes of the pagodas made for some wonderful and dramatic frames.

Wat Mahathat

Wat Mahathat
Wat Mahathat
Wat Mahathat in the middle of the historical park is the largest and the most important of all temples. The central stupa is encircled by nearly 200 smaller stupas and has the most unique and grandest architectural style. Wat Chedi Si Hong and Wat Sra Si has beautiful Sri Lankan style architecture. Wat Phra Phai Luang in Bayon style architecture is the oldest and the second most important temple in Sukhothai. Wat Si Chum enshrines a  huge Buddha statue which is also known as 'the legendary talking Buddha image'. Wat Saphan Hin with a tall Buddha statue is located on a hill. Wat Chetuphon is renowned for its beautiful mondop, a square building with four arches and a pyramidal roof. Wat Si Sawai is another interesting temple in the historical park which has influences of Khmer rule. King Ramkhamhaeng monument and Ramkhamhaeng national museum are two of the must visit places inside Sukhothai historical park. Some of the other important temples are Wat Traphang Ngoen, Wat Chana Songkhram, Wat Sorasak and Wat Mae Chon.

Wat Traphang Ngoen

Monument of King Ramkhamhaeng the great.

One can hire bicycles or take a tram to go around the park. Si Satchanalai Historical park, 82 Kms from Sukhothai is another interesting place of visit with numerous temples. Sukhothai also boasts of Thailand's two best national parks- Ramkhamhaeng and Si Satchanalai.

Signing Note- Lose yourself amidst stupas, shrines and serenity...!!

Distance- Bangkok to Sukhothai- 442 Kms (Route 117)

P.S.- I was riding across northern Thailand with Ride Thailand on an invite from Tourism Authority of Thailand.

December 16, 2013

Glimpses of Myanmar...!!

The ride was along the ridge of the hills, into the darkness with dust kicking up and tail lamps getting farther and farther. The wonderful ride across northern Thailand which was on amazing roads had suddenly given way to some challenging potholed ones. The sun had painted the sky with a riot of colours and the distant blue hills made for a wonderful landscape. As we rode on I kept gazing at the hills on my right. Beyond them was Myanmar or the old Burma. We were very close to the Myanmar border all along the ride till Mae Sot, the border town. Never had I ridden so close to an international border and the long ride along the same made it an enthralling experience. Pitch darkness and the surrounding thick forests made it an adventurous, crazy and challenging ride all the way to our resort in Mae Sot.

Sunset over the blue hills of Myanmar
As the day dawned, we rode to the border point of Thailand and Myanmar. A long bridge connects both the countries and people from either sides walk across into the other. River Moei separates the two countries as it flows peacefully below the bridge. Walking into another country is definitely on my bucket list. With no Myanmarese visa I was asking for trouble if I attempted climbing that bridge. Children from the border town in Myanmar cross over to Mae Sot for education and then go back to their home country after school. Mae Sot is a bustling town with lots of shops, markets, tourists and locals from both countries. However, people who cross over have free access only up to 10 Kms, beyond which they need a visa. Men from Myanmar stand under the bridge and lure tourists with cigarettes. Myanmarese women could be easily distinguished from their Thai counterparts from the traditional sandal paste on their cheeks.

...and that is Myanmar!

Even though we did see Myanmar from close quarters, the urge to cross over was always there. I did have my one foot in Thailand and the other in Myanmar and that was the closest that I could get to the Land of Pagodas.

P.S.- I was riding across northern Thailand with Ride Thailand on an invite from Tourism Authority of Thailand.

November 28, 2013

Panna National Park- Wild, Wilder, Wildest...!!

It was a long drive from Bandhavgarh to Panna, but we were in at the right time to witness a wonderful sunset over the Karnavati river (better known as Ken). The round ball of orange painted the sky in a riot of colours and the shimmering river glowed in its reflection. Numerous birds flew in large flocks against the back drop making it all the more dramatic. Indeed, a sight to behold! We were at Ken River lodge, an ideal setting with the charm of hunting lodges set amidst the wilderness of Panna. The surreal vista from its dining area is bewitchingly picturesque. The lodge also receives visitors who come all the way just to enjoy a lovely meal by the encapsulating river side.

Dining by the Ken
As the sky turned grey we retreated to our cottages only to wake up early for a nature walk next morning. Mr.Shukr, senior naturalist and an avid birder accompanied us on this misty morning trail which began by spotting numerous pug and paw marks of jackals, sloth bears, foxes and cattle. We trod ahead into the forest patch which was infested with colourful butterflies, nice thicket and quite a few medical trees. Various species of avian fauna were seen aplenty. Coucals, hoopoe, large grey bablers, indian robins, plum headed parakeets, doves, red vented bulbuls, woodpeckers, kingfishers, indian rollers and indian treepies were seen flying around, and it was very much a colourful and chirpy way to begin the day. There were numerous marks made by the wild boars, huge dug ups by sloth bears and cobra dens all along till we reached a stream after walking for more than an hour. The serene stream and the mist engulfed trees made for a lovely frame. Our naturalist also pointed out claw and tail marks of a monitor lizard on the sand. There were many langurs loitering around the area along with a few buffaloes which were taking a lazy dip in the waters. Shukr also pointed out a few tree trunks which had bear claw marks on them. This forest patch also has a few houses where people still live in the wild environment, not very far from civilization. The landscape of Panna comprises of five different rocks namely kimberlite, conglomerate, granite, limestone and sand stone, and these were quite evidently seen during the walk. More birds were spotted either resting on branches or flying away as we made our way through the forest cover. On our way back, our naturalist stopped without a cue and pointed to a pair of jackals which were lurking behind a bush. As soon as they realised that we had spotted them, the pair sprinted deeper into the forest. A lovely sighting to end the nature walk.

Parakeets and doves
As we were gobbling down our breakfast, Mr.Bejoy Issac, the manager on duty came in running with his binoculars pointing to a couple of crocodiles which were enjoying the sun on one of the protruding rocks in the river. Crocodiles are quite often seen in Ken river lying lazily on the rocks during day time. They did not even battle an eye lid and stayed still for a very long time before disappearing into the waters of Ken. The resort also arranges for boating and angling , and I did not miss the opportunity of having a closer look at the birds and crocodiles. Angling wasn't fruitful and all the baits turned to be futile. After fiddling with the fishing rods for a while without any success, we rowed into the belly of Ken river, spotted a couple more crocodiles and some beautiful avian fauna like darters, storks and river lapwings.

A lazy crocodile

The first safari through Panna national park was an evening one, with Shukr, the naturalist. We first visited the interpretation centre which almost matches a wildlife museum with information, photographs and other details of the national park. Antlers of a barking deer is an exciting display at the centre. After picking up the forest guide from near the park gates, we entered the world of teak trees. The park welcomes its visitors with tall teak trees lined up beautifully making the sunlight tough to penetrate the thick canopy. The deep, dark and dense forest conveyed only one thing- Green! Various shades of green spread itself like a painting on a canvas with the brown mud path snaking its way through it. Giant wood spiders had their cobs beautifully webbed from one branch to another and we began the drive with sightings of peacocks, langurs and spotted deer. Very few vehicles had entered the park at the same time as ours and all disappeared within minutes into the denseness of the jungle. From my experiences in Bandhavgarh, I decided to stay away from the thoughts of the wild cats and enjoyed whatever the forest offered me. Not very long ago, tigers were extinct in Panna national park, before the successful relocation of five tigers from Bandhavgarh and Kanha brought the stripped ones back.

Into the national park

As we drove ahead,  the naturalist pointed out bear claw marks on a couple of trees which had bee hives dangling on its branches. Parakeets, both alexandrine and plum headed were seen quite abundantly while a changeable hawk eagle perched restlessly on a branch. The numerous streams that we crossed over added to the beauty of the landscape. At one such crossing, we almost mistook a snake with its protruding head, for a piece of wood. A closer look confirmed that it was a water snake. More spotted deer and langurs were sighted before the jungle opened up its vastness with the thicket giving way to open grass lands. Ken river winds its way through the park and we had a small break near the bank of it with magnificent vistas. We lunged forward on the mud paths back into  greenery in search of anything and everything wild. A shikra perched high on a branch was the first sighting after the break, shortly followed by a sambhar deer that was grazing happily before looking up at us for a moment. A wild boar and its playful babies were seen loitering on our way back and they gleefully posed for us without a fuss. A serpent eagle flapped its wings as it flew over us and perched on a stump. 

Changeable hawk eagle
The expansive Ken
Sambhar deer
A boar family
How much ever you disagree, the want to see a tiger will always remain each time a wildlife enthusiast goes on a safari. You can reduce the level of interest, but can never ignore it. So simultaneously the search was on for the tiger and somewhere in the middle of nowhere there were two guys from the forest department with antennas and trackers which help them trace the collared tigers. The signals initially showed signs of the tiger coming the way we were headed, but turned weak after a while. Meanwhile, other jeeps also gathered nearby to sight the stripped cat. I personally do not prefer sighting tigers like this as it gives the feel of being in a game reserve than in a national park. I believe in chance encounters which are much more exciting. Moving ahead, we patiently waited at a few waterholes to try our luck. After rather long waits, we drove back without sighting any wild cats and reached the lodge in time for another lovely sunset by the Ken. With monkeys jumping all over the roof top of the cottage, the night turned into an eventful one.

The next day began quite early and the morning drive to the national park was greeted by numerous birds like copper smith barbet, jungle babbler, crested eagle, white vultures, plum headed parakeets and a lonely peacock. The route was a different one this time and the jungle engulfed us as the jeep drove deep into it. No langurs or spotted deer this time. It was just the silence of the mist wrapped jungle. The jeep slowed down suddenly and came to a halt. Our naturalist had heard an alarm call of the monkeys and the lazy morning turned into an exciting one as we waited with bated breathe for the wild one to arrive. The naturalist was sure there was a wild cat amidst the bushes as the monkeys kept repeating the alarm calls with their eyes fixed on the ground. And then within a few minutes the wild one appeared leaping across a couple of rocks beneath the trees. A leopard it was! We saw it only for a few seconds before it vanished again into the bushes. The alarm calls never stopped and the wait continued. The deep gorge next to the bushes and rocks made it tough for the leopard to go across and the only option for it was to cross the path we stood on. We waited for long but no sign of the cat. We then moved ahead a couple of meters and waited patiently. We were all looking in one direction when the leopard quietly had begun crossing the path behind us. Luckily someone pointed out and we saw the majestic creature, as shy as a newly wed bride cross the mud path in front us and then into the tall grasses. It did look up for a second or two before hiding itself amidst the grass and then went up deep into the forest. That was undoubtedly one of the wildest ways to begin the day. It was also my first leopard spotting. The excited wildlife enthusiasts moved ahead and spotted a female nilgai, not very far from where the leopard lurked. Another gorgeous looking creature which was not quite bothered about our presence. 

Leopard hiding amidst the grass
We crossed many streams, sighted a few spotted deer, wild boars and many pug marks, of both tigers and hyenas. Meanwhile, the the mud path had wound its way up, onto one of the three plateaus inside Panna national park. The verdant greenery made way for vast open lands and the gurgling Ken river sneaked itself through the landscape. The vehicle stopped again. There were continuous pug marks of a tiger and it was wet. The cat had walked the same route not very long ago. The jeep again moved slowly with eyes peering in all directions, but no sight of the one that walked the path, a while back. Two female nilgais turned their heads as we reached the top of the plateau, only to go back to busy grazing immediately. I was awed by the stunning vast landscape of Panna. It has everything, trees, thickets, grass, a variety of rocks, wonderful wildlife and a gorge with a plunging waterfall. Dundhwa waterfalls, though not at its best, falls beautifully into the depth of the massive gorge over a dense canopy and then snakes its way through the forest.  A beautiful landscape frame. A few vultures were seen perched near the falls flapping its wings and enjoying the vista. A couple of them also glided over the magnificent landscape.

A pair of Nilgais

Dundhwa falls
After a cup of refreshing coffee, we drove back, down the slope of the plateau into the denseness of the thickets. We did spot more tiger pug marks on the way back and were startled when a group of wild boars suddenly crossed the road. The jeep stopped after a while as we had a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere. Sounds exciting, isn't it? As our naturalist quickly changed tyres, we peered with a lot of concentration for anything wild that might pop up. A gazelle was the only one to enter the frame and it leapt past us at such a pace that even before I could take my lens out, it disappeared.

The wild drive into Panna national park ended with a few more bird sightings, as the tall teak trees welcomed us back to civilization. I loved Panna for its absolutely stunning landscape and the plethora of avian fauna it offers to wild life enthusiasts. The leopard sighting early in the morning is something I will always love Panna for. Raneh falls, Pandav falls and Ken Gharial sanctuary are the other interesting spots of interest in and around Panna. The ideal time to visit Panna would be from march to june when wildlife sightings would be quite high. But if you want to enjoy the verdant greenery and landscape, october to february would be the apt months.

Signing Note- Wilderness at its best...!!

Location- Madhya Pradesh
Nearest rail head- Khajuraho (30 Kms)
Nearest airport- Khajuraho (30 Kms)

I was in Panna national park on an invite from Pugdundee safaris.

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