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Saturday, September 27, 2014

A September in Ko Samui and Ko Phangan

We've just returned from a fantastic couple of weeks at Ko Samui and Ko Phangan (Thailand) - and I cannot wait to go there again. We chose these islands for our honeymoon because a detailed research into weather at beach destinations near India revealed that the Gulf of Thailand is the least likely in this region to be ravaged by monsoons in September (the Andaman sea is said to be the worst during this time). We were well rewarded for the research because we had glorious sunshine for ten of the twelve days of our holiday. 

Ko Samui and Ko Phangan are tiny islands (247 and 125 respectively) and part of the Chumphon Archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, about 700 km south of Bangkok. A quick image search will shows white sands, blue seas, and amazing sunsets - and all I can say is that the pictures do not exaggerate. At all. The sands are soft, clean and worthy of long romantic walks, and the sea at most beaches is like a massive bathtub - calm, clear and shallow - ideal for swimming, or just lying on your back and pretending you never have to go back to work again. There are some amazing coral reef formations too, and both islands are highly recommended for snorkelling and scuba diving, but this review is going to be totally from a beach bum's perspective. 

Departure terminal, Kosamui Airport
Getting to Ko Samui requires a fair bit of decision making. The faster way is to take the hour long flight from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport (Airport code: BKK) to the Ko Samui airport (Airport code: USM). Words fail me as I try to describe the Samui airport. I've never seen another airport that looks like a beach resort - the departure terminals come with thatched roofs, palm trees, lots of free food and free wifi. It has hourly flights from Bangkok, and until recently, Bangkok Airways, which built this terminal, was the only airline serving it. As one might expect, this option is a bit expensive (Bangkok Airways flight from BKK to USM is about INR 11,000 for a one way trip). The other option, which costs about a fourth of this, is to take a flight from Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport (DMK) to Surat Thani or Chumphon, which are both on the mainland, and are connected by ferries to Ko Samui and other islands (Ko Phangan, Ko Tao, and the rest) in the Gulf of Thailand. This latter option takes close to 6 hours to make it from Bangkok to Ko Samui (an hour for the flight to Surat-thani/Chumphon, an hour for the bus from the airport to the jetty, an hour for the ferry to Ko Samui, and a couple of hours of wait between each leg of the journey).

Ko Samui, they say, used to be a backpacker's paradise, and it used to be possible to find great places to stay in about 200 Baht in the not too distant past. Let's just say that those days are well past, but there are over 300 hotels and B&Bs on the island and it's easy to find great places for all budget. It might be a good idea to pick the beach you want to stay at - which basically means choosing between breathtaking sunrises or picture-perfect sunsets. I would suggest picking the east coast in Ko Samui and the west coast in Ko Phangan and getting the best of both worlds. The main beaches, clockwise from Nathon, are:
Source: Classic Travels Asia

  1. Nathon and Lipa Noi on the west coast; the ports where your ferry from the mainland will arrive. Not a favourite with tourists for staying, but known for beautiful sunsets.
  2. Laem Yai, on the north-west tip of the island. Also not strewn with tourist accommodations (I think Four Seasons has a property here), also known for perfect sunsets. 
  3. Maenam, on the northern coast, very quiet and relatively unknown
  4. Bophut, which is a quiet laid-back fishing village, but has some of the best restaurants
  5. Bang Rak, on the north eastern tip, well known for the Big Buddha statue 
  6. Choeng Mon, the quiet beach on the north shore; parts of it are too rocky for swimming. We chose to stay here, at a resort called The Tongsai Bay, which I cannot recommend enough. This is the first five-star resort on the island, and I was blown away by their commitment to protecting the environment - recycled water for plants, and not a trace of plastic anywhere!
  7. Chaweng, which I believe is largest beach, and most favoured, because of its calm, warm water, of the hot-tub-in your backyard variety. I will remember it for the yummy street food, and the super-pocket friendly massages (an hour long foot-massage for 300 Baht! and it was really good). You can walk in the water for at least a kilometer and a half, with the water coming up to your waist. 
  8. Lamai, the second most popular beach, filled with great eating places, and colorful shops. Both Lamai and Chaweng have the best nightlife on the island.
  9. South Samui beaches like Hua Thanon, LaemSet, Bang Kao are relatively untouched.
    In the ferry from Samui to Phangan
Ko Phangan is what Ko Samui was, about 20 years ago, before it became all swanky and five-star. Best known for the full moon party and the beautiful diving sites off Sailrock, it looks like a sleepy village with no more than 100 hotels and 200 restaurants (about 1 hotel and 2 restaurants per square kilometer - significantly less packed in comparison to Ko Samui). It is a budget traveller's dream, with restaurants serving delicious thai food at 50 bahts, and foot massages going at 100 Bahts! Below is a quick clockwise summary of my favourite beaches:
  1. Thongsala - the port where the ferry from Ko Samui will drop you, also the busiest, most touristy part of the island. This is home to an amazing Saturday night market, with mountains of the most colorful food you'll ever see - from purple colored sushi retailing to bright yellow mangoes, from steaming phad thai noodles to some home-made icecream that was too delicious for words. We stayed in this part of town, at the quirkily named Divine Comedie, which was a great place to stay - the beautiful rooms, the beach facing pool and bar, the hammocks on the roof were perfect; my only (minor) grudge was that the beach in front of the hotel, was too shallow and too rocky to wade into. But there are some amazing beaches on both sides of the hotel, and the absolute best restaurant on island - Fisherman's restaurant - was a 5 minute walk away, so it was all good. 
  2. Haad Salad - has some of the most high-end resorts 
  3. Thong Nai Pan - locals call this beach the "paradise on earth"
  4. Haad Rin -  this is where the famous full moon party takes place. I will remember the party for the beautiful neon colors and the alcohol being served in buckets (small ones), but I've seen crazier things at business school parties.
There are other beaches too, that you stumble on to, when you're driving around lazily and have to stop because "o my god! this is so beautiful!" - beaches that have lovely names like the Secret Beach and Haad Yao. And there's a beach called the Bottle Beach, in a very secluded northern part of the island that you can only get to by boat. 

Both islands, and this excited me more than the full moon party, have free apps (here and here) for exploring the islands, complete with reviews of beaches, restaurants, cooking classes, you name it. The most useful suggestion I can give would be to download these apps and use them mercilessly. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Exploring Kolkata, Part 1: My tips on using transport in the city of joy

In my opinion, Kolkata is one of the 5 most interesting cities in India. The fact that it is the only city in the country to have a tram network would alone put it on my map of Cities I Love. What's not to love in something that marries the joy of exploring a city with the joy of riding a train?! And I will tell you a secret - this is the only tram in the world that will stop wherever you want, whenever you want. Say your tram is turning the lush corner of the 'maidan', and you see an interesting football match that you'd like to participate in, or it is crawling through the impossible traffic on the M.G Road, and you spy rainbow colored bangles that you absolutely have to try (yes, the tram moves slowly enough for you to be able to admire bangles in stores). All you need to do is smile and nod at the tram conductor, who is busy in a heated political discussion with a passenger, ring the tiny bell next to the door, and the tram will stop. No one will be annoyed, or ask you why - it is perfectly acceptable to get off the tram and go where your fancy takes you. And the opposite holds true as well: if your feet are sore, and you find yourself near tram tracks, just hang around. If they see you waiting, they'll be happy to stop. This adorable randomness would explain why the Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) has made the tram schedules so hard to find. You can find them here, and plan your trip with the assumption that trams start about 15 minutes before or after they're meant to. I wouldn't rely on them for getting anywhere on time, but for a tourist who has leisure, they're a god-send. My advice would be choose any starting point from the schedule, and to walk/take a cab there.

If you don't like the idea of aimless wandering through the city, hopping on and off trams, there are other interesting modes of transport, each one unique to the city. First, the yellow taxis. Most people agree that Kolkata would not be Kolkata without the yellow cabs. Nearly all the taxis are falling apart at the seams, and the cabbies can be very crusty if you rub them the wrong way (one memorable conversation went like this - Me: Will you go to Hindustan Park? He: No. Me, bewildered and upset because he was the 4th guy to turn me down: Why are you parked here then? He, smirking in a way only the Kolkata cabbie can: Because I like watching the traffic). But if you're very polite, and if they're in the mood, they'll go everywhere, and tell very interesting stories on the way.

Second, the Kolkata Metro. The metro line is a fairly fast mode of travel, and is very easy to understand, being a single line. So a train is either going toward the airport (the Dum Dum), or going towards the south of the city, to the Kavi Subhash station. There are 21 stations on the way, and the frescoes on each station wall are unique works of art. I especially like the murals in the Esplanade station. So if you like efficient sight-seeing, and if you're short on time, it would be a good idea to make a list of the places you want to see and eat/drink at, and then use the metro wherever it fits into the itinerary (it's the first metro in the country, and should definitely make it to every Kolkata itinerary) and cabs everywhere else.

And finally, the circular rail. This one is mainly for train enthusiasts like me, but has two added advantages - proximity to some of the must-see places in Kolkata, and fantastic views of the Hooghly river for a large part of the route. A schedule of the circular rail can be seen here, but this again, is a picturesque but less reliable way of moving through the city. My own affair with the circular rail did not begin well. I saw the map and decided to board the circular rail at the romantic sounding "Majerhat" because it looked like it would be close to the river. But when I reached the station, I learned that the monsoons had changed some schedules, and a train was likely to arrive from the station at 3 PM (it was 1 PM then). I'm sorry to have to say that the station was extremely dirty, muddy and depressing. Not relishing the prospect of waiting there for 2 hours for a train that might not arrive, I decided to take a cab to the next station. Things got steadily worse because the road in front of the station was a mud track, did not have any cabs at a 10-minute walk in either direction, and was completely untraceable on my phone maps. After half an hour of walking through ankle deep mud, I reached a road and got into the first cab I saw, and when the cabbie turned around in surprise, (you're supposed to ask - "XYZ place chaloge?", and get into the cab only when they say yes), I'm ashamed that I squeaked - "Just get me out of here!". 

But I soon found that the maps were working again, and asked him to take me to what is almost my favourite road in Kolkata - the Sarat Bose Road. After fortifying myself with two fantastic cups of tea at a delightful cafe called The Tea Trove, I decided to tackle the circular rail again. This time, I headed towards the Prinsep Ghat and struck gold. This ghat, very close to the Fort William, should definitely be on your Kolkata itinerary; it has a porch (built in the year 1843, dedicated to one James Prinsep, who is known for deciphering a lot of historical inscriptions on coins and rock/metal edicts, including the Ashoka inscriptions), set in a beautiful garden from which you can some great views of the Hooghly and the Howrah. Princep Ghat to Babughat is a lovely 2 km walk next to the river, and has some interesting historic relics including the Man O War jetty, and a 40-year old ice-cream shop which the locals seem to love. The train station in one corner of the park perfectly rounds up the storybook feel of this place. So I would think of the circular rail as a thing to see and experience rather than a mode of transport. I would recommend taking cab to the Prinsep Ghat (or the tram that goes around Fort William), and walk around the park until you hear the train coming. Then board the train, ride it up and down till the Bada Bazaar station - this should take about an hour. The views from the train will be worth the trouble. 

Next Post: Places to see and eat/drink at in Kolkata....

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Thoughts of a brand new Vipassana Meditator

Or, a Review of the 10-day Vipassana Course

16 June 2014
In a train somewhere in the middle of Madhya Pradesh
I had the good fortune to spend the last ten days at a Vipassana meditation center this month, and I’d like to put my thoughts down for friends and family who have been asking about the experience. But let me first clarify my position on this subject. Although I've long been curious about meditation and have been drawn to courses that teach you how it’s done, there are two reasons why it isn't an active part of my life yet. The first is the stereotypes that exist around meditation and spiritualism. A lot of us say that we'd "like to be more spiritual", but at the same time, meditation is viewed with mild discomfort, perhaps even contempt. It is associated with people who are looking for attention or publicity, hippies, people who are lost, depressed, or sick, or generally people who just have a lot of time on their hands. I know such perceptions exist because I have held them myself. 

The second barrier has been the sheer hard work and commitment it needs. Mr. S.N. Goenka describes people like me with this interesting metaphor: Say you want a reliable source of water and start digging a well. Having dug a 5-foot hole in the ground, you get tired and bored and hear about a place where you can find fresher and sweeter water – so you go there and start digging. And get tired and bored after digging 5-feet. And so on until you have a dozen pits, any of which would yield water if you dig for just a little while longer. The key would be to choose one, and just keep at it. Easier said than done, of course.

The Vipassana Center in Borivali, Bombay

And now to my review of the course: 

I call it a review, not to be presumptuous or irreverent, but for lack of a better word for a description that I hope will get people interested. The course is conducted over ten days, which has been found to be the minimum amount of time needed to teach the basics of the meditation technique. For this entire 10-day period, you are required to live in one of the 150 or so Vipassana centers across the world, with no contact with the outside world. You give up all electronic devices, reading and writing material. And as a further device to still the mind, you take a vow of ‘noble silence’ for 9 of these 10 days. What this means is that you do not communicate with anyone, by word or gesture, unless it is with your teacher or the management and only about issues that make your meditation comfortable. You find yourself unable to take your mind off your painful knee? Ask the teacher. You forgot to carry soap, or want to drink only bottled water? Speak to the management. The living quarters are clean and comfortable (the place where I did my course, the Vipassana Center in Borivali, Bombay, is almost luxurious, with air conditioning, and laundry services. My old timer friends turn their noses up at these comforts and say that centers based in wildernesses – like Igatpuri and Jaipur – are more basic, but  many times more beautiful). You are served food 3 times a day – delicious, vegetarian food, in spicy and non-spicy variants. You do not get any food after 5.30 PM (they say an empty stomach is very conducive to effective meditation), but they’re happy to make an exception for you should your medical condition require it. And all this at no expense. The centers are run on voluntary donations given by students and patrons across the globe.

The management consists of volunteers who are all “old students” – which is what they call people who have completed at least one 10-day course. This group of people is entitled to participate in short courses (from 1-2-days) and long courses (up to 60 days) held across the globe. Nearly half the students in my class were old students, which I thought was strange until I learned that all practising Vipassana meditators are required to take the 10-day course annually, to ensure a comfortable journey on the path of meditation.

What does one do all day?

You learn to meditate under clear, step-by-step instructions. You’re taught to still your mind, to sharpen it, and to train to it to observe your body, with a goal to achieve increased mind-body awareness. And why must one strive to achieve increased mind-body awareness? This is an exciting area of thought, and every one understands this their own way. I'm reading Dr. Paul R. Fleischman’s book The Ancient Path these days and really liking it. This american psychiatrist is a brilliant writer - insightful and witty.Very simply put, the junction of mind and body is where our deepest truths are stored, truths that consist of unpleasant memories, motivations that drive us, everything. Modern psychiatry no longer finds this far-fetched, having dealt with victims of physical injury who carry ‘phantom pains’ in non-existent limbs. And meditating on your body begins to puts one in touch with the source of some revolutionary truths about oneself. While these principles are hard to understand (and accept) for a beginner, it is not essential that one understands the mechanics of meditation for it to work - just like you don’t need to know what paracetamol does to the COX family of enzymes in your body for it to stop the fever. 

As a more concrete example, on day 1, they teach you to still your mind and observe your breath. While this sounds simple enough, I agree with Dr. Fleischman when he says that it like to trying to stand on a beach ball. Just when you think you've got the hang of it, you fall. You get up, try again and fall again. But over time, under specific, patient instructions from your teacher, at end of a day or two of trying, you learn to do it. The instructions get steadily more complex over the 10 days, and you find yourself progressively understanding how the sensations on your body are inexorably linked with your thoughts and motivations. It’s an absolutely amazing realization, but it comes and goes. And to continue with the concrete stuff, my two biggest worries before the course – that it will be boring and physically painful – were both unfounded. It is a very interesting process, both at an intellectual and an experiential level, and I was bored only during the 90 minute breaks in the afternoon that you’re given for sleeping, washing your clothes, etc. And conquering the pain was one huge adventure. They also have backrests and chairs for people who might need them.

So what can Vipassana do for you? (Or, why I’m hoping to convince some loved ones do participate in a course soon)....

It's a great way to start the process of training your mind: People have described the process as tuning your radio to catch the positive and harmonious waves in the universe, to become calmer and more effective participants in life. For meditation to have any long term transformative effect, it needs to become a daily part of your life. But even the 10 day course can change the way you look, feel and act, albeit temporarily (I have never slept so well). Nearly everyone reports feeling more alive, more aware of the self and the world. 
It's a connection with an amazing community: Without going into details, let me just say that my ideas of what kind of people meditate have undergone a complete shift. On the last day, when you're permitted to speak, you learn that the unassuming people that you have been living with consist of some very impressive professionals and academics. And they all want to help you on your journey - they have centers in many cities where you can just go and spend a day of silence and reflection, any time you want. 

It is also worthwhile to understand what it cannot do.

What Vipassana is not:

It is not a religious sect. Almost my favorite thing about the course was its non-religious nature. Even though the meditation technique being taught here is firmly rooted in the principles that Gautama Buddha taught nearly 3000 years ago, it is important to understand that this is not Buddhism. Buddhism as a religion did not start until nearly 5 centuries after Buddha’s death. Even Buddha was not a Buddhist! They do not talk about God and souls and all those things, which, for me, was a huge relief.
It is not a therapeutic technique. I loved the sugar factory metaphor - If you set up a factory to make sugar, know that you're doing it for the sugar; you will get the molasses, sure, but do not set up the factory to get the molasses, they're not that important! What this means is that meditation is a way to transform your life, it is not something you're doing just to get rid of aches and pains and illnesses. 
It is not a way of life where you do not care about things. I know some people who worry about the whole concept of detachment - will I stop caring about things? Am I learning to let go of ambition, and of love and relationships? The answer is no. You're being taught to let go - not of love and ambition - but of the discomfort that accompanies these. Minus the discomfort, one can be that much more impactful.
It is not a place to have “experiences". Sorry to disillusion, but there will be no visions, no sensations of ecstasy, no sudden insights into the past and future. But there will be an amazing sense of joy for having started the process of learning something truly worthwhile. 

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