Learning from Thailand’s tourism

We all know that Thailand has a pretty effective inbound tourism sector, clocking up about 3 times the number of foreign tourists we get (just to keep this stat in context, India has 6 times the land mass of Thailand and of course 20 times its population).

My recent trip to Phuket gave me some clues as to why this happens. The most important reason that I can see is that the Thai people are ‘naturals’ for tourism, with a warm & cheery disposition that makes an outisder welcome immediately. The second key reason is that the logistics of tourism involving the co.ordination of activities between multiple small actors works surprisingly smoothly in that country.

Let me take an example. We did a a one-day trip to Phang Nga, the place made famous by innumerable photos of awesome towering limestone rocks and sea caves. We booked this trip with a small tour operator just outside our hotel in the Karon beach area. ‘Tuk’, the smiling and cheerful young lady who ran the outfit spent enough time with us to go through all the options needed before consensus could be reached by an opinionated family of 4.  Then she made a call, confirmed availabilty and booked us for the trip. She said the cab to pick us would reach at 9 am the next morning.

It did. The cabbie picked up a couple of more small groups in a clean van and drove us over a neat expressway for about an hour to the pier from where we were to take a boat. At the pier we were met by ‘ying ying’ another smiling thai girl (so now you now why they get a real rep!) who was to be our guide on the boat trip. We got on to the boat and reached the caves where we were transferred to small canoes handled by young local lads. And then we were shifted to a small man-made island on stilts where we had lunch at a small restaurant. And so on..

Here is the notable thing. Tuk, the cabbie, ying-ying, the canoeists, the floating restautant – none of these people were officially a part of the company that operated the trip. However, every person performed their role to perfection and with complete predictability. We did not have to call or talk to anyone to co-ordinate anything. Imagine the same thing in India – the likelihood of one of these pieces not working seamlessly would have been very high.

I do not know how the Thais do this. But I do know one thing. If we can emulate this to even 50% of the efficiency of the Thais, we can substantially improve our tourism image.

Mayang Sari Beach Resort, Bintan

Nirwana Gardens is a resort complex in Bintan that has 3 resort options. The eponymous Nirwana Gardens is the regular place with all the facilities that you expect from an all-inclusive resort hotel. The Beach Club is the place for the serious water-sport enthusiast, with other facilities a bit thin. Mayang Sari is a bit of both. And since we were in a ‘middle-of-the-road’ mood, we plonked for Mayang Sari.

It was a good choice.

Mayang Sari Resort Beach

Mayang Sari

Mayang Sari Beach Resort

Mayang Sari

Bintan Island in the Riau archipelago – a prologue

I am sure the seventeen men that controlled the Dutch East India company (the Herren XVII of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, to show you that I know this sort of stuff well) knew about it before me, but I felt no less an explorer when I landed on Bintan island. After all, it is not everyday that you get a chance to reach an outlying island among the group of almost 20,000 islands that make up one of the world’s most populous and to me one of its more likable countries.

These days, it is just a 45 minute fast-ferry ride from Singapore to the Bintan island in Indonesia, but in the old days, this island was an incidental part of the great southern arc that stretched from Malabar (Kerala) in India to the outer reaches of the south-eastern islands of today’s Indonesia, creeping almost up to modern Papua New Guinea – the production epicentre of the ancient world’s great spice route. One of the great spice islands it certainly was not and so was probably ignored in the maritime rivalries of Spain, Portugal and England. And left to curious travellers of the early 21st century to find some of the more beautiful beaches on earth.

An Indian Beach bum looking for the fastest way to get to a world-class beach? Rush to Bintan.

Visas for Indians are on arrival (for most westerners, visa is exempt) and for a stay upto 7 days, you need to pony up USD 10 per person. The catch is, being a government requirement, you need to have the exact 10 USD. So, ensure you carry the exact cash with you.

Of course, the mystery of why A R Rahman has replaced Celine Dion as the default muzak in ferries, restaurants & the such (although, thank god for that I say) in this region has not been fully cracked. Obviously, the return of India’s ancient cultural colonisation springs to mind. But there might be more to it…

Segway across New Zealand, Turkey and soon all over the world

Ok, this is an interesting one. Kevin Hey and a bunch of other guys now offer tours that allow you to explore New Zealand’s cities on a Segway. You remember the Segway Personal Transporter? Those contraptions that allow you to stand on them and move about on wheels.

Looks like Segways are catching on in Tourism. I came across a video that show Beach Resorts in Turkey using them (see the video on top). A friend of mine in the travel business in Goa tells me that a couple of resorts there are thinking of getting a few here too.

On my recent visit to Dubai, I happened to glimpse a chap tearing across a boulevard near my hotel on a segway, a sight which rang all the right bells in me. I would certainly like to have one, although driving one around in any Indian city is asking for serious trouble. In Bangalore, I will most likely disappear down a man-hole never to be heard of again. I can think of at least 3 people who would like that.  :)

View of Dubai from a helicopter

Anshul & Rashi took their 5 year old up in a helicopter over Dubai. It costs US$ 800 for a 30 minute (max. 5 adults) and they say it is well worth it. Here is some of what they saw. Check it out the next time you are in Dubai.

A Dubai Panorama

The Burj Al Arab & Jumeirah beach Hotel

The Burj Dubai on its way to becoming the world’s tallest building

Cranes over Hotel Atlantis

Click on for a few more photos.

Continue reading

Cyprus, Greece and Turkey

As this map of the Mediterranean shows, Cyprus is really pushed into Asia and closer to Africa than to Europe. And as I lay bobbing in the lovely blue waters of Larnaca’s bay in the south-east of the Island of Cyprus , I knew that a bit further down to my left was Syria, straight down was Israel and to my right, Egypt. I was truly in the cusp of Asia Minor and Northern Africa and just a stone’s throw away from Southern Europe.

Cyprus is mostly Greek, which is surprising considering Greece is relatively far away. The other part of CYprus is Turkey. The Greeks and the Turks have been traditional competitors in the Eastern Mediterranean rim. And as is the case with such long running feuds between two countries who see themselves as ‘ancient civilizations’, history can never be forgotten and solving problems among the two is a pretty torturous process.

IN 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus and took a portion of the Island. The Greek Cypriots screamed blue murder and now call the rest of the island (the non-Turkish part), ‘Free Cyprus’, which does seem to be a loaded term. In the span of just the 3 days I was there, I too got a small taste of the long running animosity. On the very first day of my visit, I was talking to a middle-aged lady owner of a book-shop. I casually asked her about the language of Cyprus. She looked at me for 10 seconds in shock and sniffed, “Greek. The Cypriots are Greek people”. And she absolutely refused to talk to me after that. Although 35 years have passed, the war is fresh in people’s minds and unsuspecting visitors can get caught in the cross-fire.

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

An evening at the waterfront promenade in Larnaca

(Larnaca Waterfront Promenade)

The shrill whistle blew my reverie. The fat guy again, on the dot every 15 minutes or so. For the full 3 hours that I sat there, I did’nt see him sell any stuff. But he sat in front of his little shop with a mischevious inner smile just about touching his lips. And every 15 minutes, he would pick up a little whistle and let go, scaring the odd pigeon and causing ripples in absolutely nothing else. Larnaca’s waterfront promenade at twilight is a place nothing much can cause ripples in.

The wildest sights of the evening are the young studs walking about in marauding groups. And knowing the way Cyprus is, the most dangerous thing they will probably ever get up to is to overdo the hair-gel. Hey, but I cannot complain. I used to be one too, and soon, my elder one will get there. Whew. The chicitas walking in front know exactly what is happening. The poor guys behind, huge hormone cocktails all of them, frantically hurrying after lithe tanned legs in front, involuntarily caught in the oldest rip tide of Life – that of the mating call.

What a mixture of races this is. I can see the patrician Greek faces one remembers from old paintings that show oval faced Greek beauties with tendrils of hair over the faces. Well, go to the Larnaca promenade to see them. They are still there and they are beautiful. Is’nt it strange how the greatest civilisations have the best looking women – is that a Cause or an Effect I wonder?

Anyway, back to the Race question. The ubiquitous Filipino nanny is here too. What is it about the Filipinos that seem to make them great care-givers. For some reason, they seem to be a Race of friendly, caring people for whom the act of helping others is genuinely interesting. While economic necessity and the ability to speak English are often touted as the reasons why Filipinos are all over the world as maids & nannies (and of course, there is no doubt about these), I am starting to think there is more to it than that.

Funnily enough, there are a number of people who look fairly Indian. They look like us, but they also look different. Mysterious. Are they Gypsies? And then of course, there are the hordes of Northerners. Brits, Germans, Nordic types, Russians, Slavs…

Now, let us dwell on Northerners for a moment. They work hard all through the year, running hither and thither buying this, selling that and making money. And for one glorious month every year, they go to the Sun and hang about and do little, soaking in enough heat into their bones to help them pass the next 11 months in a harsh land. Geography determines all human actions. If you are born in a cold and hostile land that does not give you an even chance of survival, the only thing you can do is to Do. Move about, keep warm, forage and maraud – just to survive. Thousands of years of this imperative has given the Northerners a way of life that I am sure they never thought possible. They have almost effectively tamed the Elements in their favour and with their great expending of energy brought the whole world under their sway. So successful has this model of incessant work been, some of them have even coded it into their religion. They call it the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’. The idea that more work is morally & spiritually uplifting and someone who does less work deserves a boot from God. Get to hotter climes and you can see this idea start to wobble. Many years ago, I remember reading a novel by the American Frank Yerby, in which the first scene opens with a European pastor walking down the steps of his ship after a long voyage under the blazing summer sun, to find a small Indian curled up, sleeping under a tree. Confirms all his prejudices of the ‘indolent natives’. Now the whole world has unquestioningly adopted this ideal of incessant work and its pay-off of world domination. Come to think of it, this is a pretty stupid idea for people in warmer climes. After all, if your land is blessed by the elements and there is no threat of imminent death (as there would be in cold and hostile clime) I see no reason to work so hard. And young George, the Cypriot with a Dutch mother, who gave me a great introduction to Limassol and Lefkara (about which another post will follow) eloquently argued for the same thing. Alvin Toffler in one of his books has a chapter titled “Gandhi with Satellites’, in which he paints the possibility of the human race moving to a very small, local community based mode of a quiet life (much like our forefathers in the tropics did just a couple of generations ago) but with the important difference that technology allows us to be masters of the Elements everywhere on Earth and to communicate with each other across the globe. I believe the next century wil take us very close to this situation. Modern Cyprus is a harbinger.

In this medley of races is obviously a medley of clothes. Uber-chic western dresses mix with turkish head scarves with the odd traditional skirt thrown in. Why do Western women look so good in western clothes and not so good – sorry girls – in Indian stuff like Sarees (ok, ok, just to even the field, I think the reverse is true for Indian women). I think it has to do with Shoulders. Occidental women are generally big-built and this means wide shoulders. The more I observe western clothing the more I think it is primaily about adorning these wide shoulders. On the other hand, clothing for Indian women is mostly about draping the hips – the shoulders dont seem to count. And in this difference probably lies the reason why the twain can never meet.

And in these deep and grave thoughts, passed an evening at the waterfront promenade in Larnaca…

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

A first visit to Cyprus

Cyprus has for long been on my list of places to visit. This Eastern Mediterranean island is at the confluence of Europe, Asia & Africa and so geographically is at a clearly fascinating place. And as is inevitable with such Geography, the history is pretty interesting too. The Turks, The Cypriots and The Greeks have been fighting over this piece of land for a very long time and I am told, scars of all of these battles remain.

Of course, given that Cyprus was a British Colony till 1955, it is a big destination for English tourists seeking Sun.

I have my visa done and tickets & hotel booked for a short visit to Cyprus.

Read all my Cyprus posts here.

See lots of Cyprus photos here.

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and 10 other Indian cities

HolidayIQ has just revamped its weekend getaway section. Now one can find weekend getaway destinations as well as weekend getaway resorts/hotels by distance from each of the top 17 Indian cities.

Click here to see the new pages:

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata

Weekend getaways from all 17 cities

Planning a holiday abroad? Book your hotel online.

Over the last few weeks I have had a number of people asking me various doubts on planning an independent international holiday & particularly about booking hotels abroad. So, till such time as HolidayIQ launches a comprehensive international section (don’t worry, that is coming soon & I promise, it will be a great planning tool), here is a quick primer on how to book hotels & resorts abroad.

I am an online guy, so my first preference is always to book hotels online. With both Travelocity and Expedia launching India sites, the widest international hotel inventory is available to be booked from India and paid in Rupees. So, it sure beats your neighbourhood travel agent hollow. And since both sites have an Indian call centre, one can also talk to a real person in India to double check your bookings, which is often a real comfort.

I stress-tested booking a family room (4 people, 2 adults and 2 kids) at Orlando – in or around Disneyworld – on both the sites. Both Expedia & Travelocity did a good job and threw up a number of options (although Travelocity gave funny error messages & repeatedly failed in my Firefox browser which was a disappointment). However, Expedia’s search methodology was a shade more user-friendly since it allows you to find hotels by naming the Attraction you want to go to and throws up hotels around the attraction. Of course, both Travelocity & Expedia also allow you to narrow the list of hotels in the search results by distance or ease of access to the attraction.

Both excelled in prices. Hotel room prices around Disneyworld started in Expedia at Rs 1386 per night and in Travelocity at Rs 1583 per night. Continue reading

St Mary’s Island near Malpe beach, Udupi, Karnataka

Here are bunch of photos of St Mary’s Island, taken by my photographer-friend Nagesh who has roamed this coastline since his childhood (and who is, incidentally, shooting India’s first fully digitally shot movie). Since they are such lovely snaps, I decided to let the story follow the photos.

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As I wrote sometime ago, if Karnataka gets its act together, it has everything going for it to emerge as India’s top tourism destination. Here is more proof.

St Mary’s island is a little slip of land about 30 minutes out into the sea from Malpe Beach in Udupi. As you can see in the photos, God certainly let loose on this one; it is gorgeous and I can say this with the certainty of someone who has seen a fair number of beaches and islands across the world. The island is full of crystallised basalt rock, a unique rock formation found in very few places in the world, the most notable being the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And, the sea between the island and the long curve of the beach at Malpe is placid and gentle (or at least looks that way).

As I stood on this little island last week, it was clear that it is crying out for a bit of tender, loving attention. Continue reading

Sailing from the Dona Paula jetty in Goa

The Swift anchored in the deserted Butterfly beach in Goa

(The Swift at anchor in the deserted cove at Butterfly Beach, near Palolem, Goa)

Ashwin Tombat left a journalist’s career in (then) Bombay to settle down in Goa. And he confesses it has been a great ride. And now he combines his professional role as the Editor of Herald, Goa’s second most circulated English newspaper, with his passion for sailing as a coordinator for the Goa Yachting Association.

I have never sailed before although the idea has always held appeal. So, I took up on Ashwin’s offer to take me sailing. And on a fine, sunny afternoon last week, I joined Ashwin on his 20 ft sailboat, The Swift at the Don Paula jetty for what turned out a bad case of amour. The last time this happened to me was when I was 20 years old and as you would suspect it was a girl. This time it was the absolutely seductive charm of softly lapping waves, the breeze across your face and the companionable silence of men on a voyage of no purpose.

We set sail at about 2 pm and held course for the small & relatively less visited beach Continue reading

Daman & Diu

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(Daman & Diu tourism map, courtesy eindiamaps)

In my quest for little known destinations across India, especially beach destinations, I have been pondering about Daman & Diu. Since I haven’t got there yet, checked up the reviews on HolidayIQ for Daman & Diu. Here is the gist.

Go to Daman & Diu largely because it close to Mumbai and Ahmedabad. A big thing there seems to be booze, since it is surrounded by ‘dry’ Gujarat. Travel between Nani Daman & Moti Daman (the 2 parts of the territory) by boat. Check out the beaches. Although the beaches are clean, they are a bit muddy (not sandy) and so might not be great for the usual beach experience. Sea food is good.

There are 39 resorts & hotels listed for Daman & Diu, which came as a bit of a surprise. Cidade De Daman seems to be a popular place to stay.

Not sure this is getting me all excited. But, maybe I will keep it for a rainy day so to speak.

Click here for my posts on all beach vacations in India and abroad.

Click here for all posts on ‘Secret Indian Destinations’ 

Konkan coast on rails

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(Map of Konkan Railway)

So, I am off again. The idea is to get to Mangalore and work my way up to Goa and then from there to explore the beaches of Sindhudurg in South Maharashtra. It is a non-plan, plan. I have a train ticket from Bangalore to Mangalore. I have a ‘second sitting’ booked from Mangalore to Madgaon. (I think www.IRCTC.co.in is a blazing wonder – I just booked, very effortlessly, a 71 buck ticket for the MAQ – MAO journey and even have a window seat allotted to me; need to see whether seat allotments hold on passenger trains on the Konkan railway). I also have a return ticket to fly back from Goa to Bangalore. Hopefully, serendipity will help me fill the rest.

Click here for all my posts on the Konkan.

And, click here for all my posts on Trains, planes, spacecraft etc.

Online booking of train tickets on Konkan Railway

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(Mario Miranda’s cartoon for Konkan Railway)

The first line of the online booking page of Konkan Railway reads as follows:

Internet booking is available ONLY to Indians, Foreign nationals and NRIs holding a valid passport.”

Clearly Martians and other riff-raff Aliens cannot hope to hoodwink the Konkan Railway bureaucracy. Equally, NRIs (who are obviously neither Indians nor Foreign Nationals) have to watch their step. I sleep well in the knowledge that our country and our national treasures are well protected, if not by everyone, atleast by the good folks at Konkan Railway.

If you are an Indian, Foreigner or NRI, click here to book your tickets with Konkan Railway.

http://www.konkanrailway.com/website/ehtm/online_reservation.htm

All others can click here for my Konkan posts or here for all posts on Beach vacations.

Beaches

As regulars have figured out by now, I love em. There is this very physical urge to plunge into water; the intensity of it always surprises me. Over the years, this irrational connect with a watery world has convinced me of the power of some of those ‘sciences’ that we so airily disrespect (remember the old Time magazine stories of Nancy Reagan’s Séances). I am born of the sun-sign Pisces, which of course is the Fish sign and that is only explanation I have ever got to this very real ‘pull’ of water. So, beaches have taught me to respect astrology & enjoy things that you cannot always explain.

Here are some of my Beach posts. Expect more.

Best Beaches of Asia

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(Havelock beach : photo from HolidayIQ)

Conde Nast Traveller has ranked Beach No. 7 (Radhanagar Beach) in Havelock Island, Andamans as one of the top beaches of Asia. I have not been to Havelock although I have done other parts of the Andamans. While the place is astonishing and almost indescribable in its sheer natural beauty, I still think Lakshadweep is a shade – just a shade – better. CN Traveller have also suggested Barefoot at Havelock as the place to stay while there. HolidayIQ members who visited Havelock Island have been ecstatic about the place. They also have pretty interesting reviews and cool pictures for Barefoot At Havelock. Check out both by clicking here.

The Top 5 in the Conde Nast Traveller list of the best Asian beaches are :

  1. Palawan, Philippines
  2. Beach No. 7, Havelock Island, India
  3. Nihiwatu beach, Indonesia
  4. Baa, Maldives
  5. Laem Tong Bay, Phi Phi, Thailand

Click here for all my posts on Beach Vacations.

Click here for all accommodation options in Havelock.

Click here to know all about going on a holiday to the Andamans.

Click here for the Conde Nast article.

Want to go to Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro & the Serengeti?

Watch this video to find out which country you need to go to for a combination of a great island holiday, a fabled mountain climb and the world’s best wildlife viewing.

Click here for all my posts on Africa.