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Hope you take the best of this new beginning with full fun and masti!!


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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Thailand : Bangkok - Spirituality Backdrops Modernity




We took off from Phuket right on time for Bangkok, on Thai Airways flight. The flight was another example of hospitable Thai courtesy which offered us refreshments on board a one hour flight. The attendants approached us if we needed second servings of the sandwich as they had some extra Asian Vegetarian ones which we had ordered as part of a special meal. They took two rounds of serving drinks, all in the short span of time that they had to offer meals and performing other safety procedures. We landed on time at about 2:00 PM on the domestic terminal of the Suvarnabhumi Airport of Bangkok. After collecting our luggage we moved towards the exit to meet the MakeMyTrip representative. The meeting point is located at the international terminal of the airport.

While we met the representative, we got a chance to experience a traditional Thai dance performance at the arrival area of the airport. There was a troupe consisting of 5 performers and supporting crew of drummers who had assembled there to welcome some dignitary. We were unconcerned about who was coming in but focused our attention on the performance. The half an hour presentation showcased the subtle artwork of hand and feet movement no the local rhymes which kept us engaged throughout. Once the performance ended, we moved to our car and began our journey towards the hotel. In about an hour, we were entering the fourth-floor reception of The Golden Tulip – Madison Suites.
Sky Train Coming Out of Concrete Jungle
It was a nice facility located in Sukhumvit area, midst of all the activity of the city. This is a happening place of this metropolis and the hotel was right beside Bangkok’s iconic Sky Train – next to Asok station - which could take you across the city in minutes. The location is close to many shopping malls, nightlife, and restaurants. The reception was on the fourth floor of the building and had a tempting pool across at the same level. There was a full-service restaurant on one corner by the pool. Contrary to the hotel in Phuket, this was a full-service four-star facility and we entered our Suite to be pleasantly surprised. The hotel had made meticulous attempts to ensure the special occasion we were celebrating had a mark in each part of the room. We unpacked our stuff and settled in the room. Meanwhile, I contacted the concierge and finalized plans for next two days. I booked a dinner cruise for the same night and a trip to the suburbs of the city on next day.

After freshening up and slipping into our party dress, we left the hotel at about 5 PM and took the cab to River City Mall located by the Chao Phraya River. After checking into the cruise and blocking our seats, we spent time exploring the shopping mall. It was pretty big set up but still under renovation. There were quite a few Thai specialty outlets, including those of clothes, food, and souvenirs. Nyara, one outlet of souvenirs, was particularly interesting for the handicraft wallets – both for ladies and men. After spending time there we reached the boarding pier right on time to see herds of people waiting to get on the boat. The boat – Chao Phraya Princess IV - docked at about 8 PM and we took our seats on the upper deck. The set up mimicked any upmarket buffet restaurant over two stories. The upper deck was an open air facility while lower deck had air conditioned buffet on offer. Both the setups had live DJ music playing popular numbers on the PA system. As people settled in the seats, we were served welcome drinks which were a pungent fruit mix which we took a pass on. As the boat sailed past the pier and began the journey the dinner service started. The food was good and had plenty of options on the menu to meet everyone’s taste. As the vessel crisscrossed the city on the waterway, the trip took us through all the iconic monuments of the city – Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, other temples, State Tower and malls. We could see multiple small piers in front of many buildings on the river front which were stoppages for regular water taxis that plied on the river. After a couple of hours on the boat, we finally anchored back on the pier and disembarked. We took the cab back to the hotel and called it a day.
Views Across River Chao Phraya
Next day we had a really early start and were at the restaurant right at 6 for the breakfast. By the time we finished with the breakfast, the pick was ready to take up for the day long trip. After about a couple of hours of a drive, we stopped at our first location, the floating market. This was a unique market as the shops and shoppers, both are onboard water vessels. The maze of narrow water canals spread far and wide and each channel abounded in small boats loaded with stuff – souvenirs, clothes, wallets, hats, food items and other memorabilia – ready to woo the shoppers. Shoppers, mostly tourists, were themselves on small boats carefully maneuvered by the skilled boatman. The boatman was ready to stop at as many shops as you want and would not hurry a bit to end the trip as they had their commissions set for each sale they facilitated. We picked up a couple of items and ended the trip in the interest of time. The experience was special and novel for both of us and worth the trip.

The Floating Market - Shops on Boats
Next spot on the trip was the River Kwai’s bridge in Kanchanaburi - right near to the Myanmar border - which is a live monument of World War II. During WW II, Japan constructed the meter-gauge railway line from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma. The line passing through the scenic Three Pagodas Pass runs for 250 miles. This is now known as the Death Railway. The railway line was meant to transport cargo daily to India, to back up their planned attack on India. The construction was done using POWs and Asian slave laborers in unfavorable conditions. It was an iconic project in the sense that a wooden bridge across the river was set up within 7 days. While the wooden bridge was subsequently replaced by a permanent metaled bridge which took about a month – again a challenge by any standards. There was a World War Museum near the bridge which contained items from the item – weapons, war-dresses, documents and other curios. We spent an hour and a half at the point and then proceeded to our next point of interest. The Tiger Temple was a forest monastery and we spent some good moments amidst tigers and monks for about an hour and then left for the hotel. We reached the hotel after a long three-hour drive and took our time to relax. 

Later in the evening, we proceeded to experience the city on our own. Guided by Google Maps, we strolled to the Benjakitti Park. It was great evening place where locals and tourist enjoyed the lake equally. There are separate walking and cycling tracks for those venturing to this park for their evening exercise. We sat across for about half an hour and absorbed the evening charm of the city and its people. The freshness of the surrounding and views was simply great. We had an awesome view of the Bangkok Skyline across the lake and enjoyed every bit of it. From there, we took a walk up to the famed shopping mall of the area – Terminal 21. This mall has an interesting theme running through it – each of the 9 floors is designed based on one of the famous cities from across the world. You travel from San Francisco to Paris to Rome to the Caribbean just by riding an escalator. The mall boasts of almost all international and national brands along with plentiful of eating and entertainment options. We spent time until late at night and then took the ride on famous tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

Next was the last day of our Thailand trip, and the usual melancholy of ending a great trip gradually set in. We packed our bags and had a heavy breakfast to take us through the day. We checked out of the hotel and went ahead with our plans to explore the city – our own style. We took a cab for the Grand Palace, the symbolic center of royal power in Thailand. Built in 1782 - and for 150 years the home of the Thai King, the Royal court and the administrative seat of government - the Grand Palace of Bangkok is a grand old dame indeed, that continues to have visitors in awe with its beautiful architecture and intricate detail, all of which is a proud salute to the creativity and craftsmanship of Thai people. Within its walls were also the Thai war ministry, state departments, and even the mint. Today, the complex remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom. One needs to be conscious of the fact that visiting monasteries, temples, and palaces in Thailand come with certain restrictions. You are not allowed to wear revealing clothes and cannot put on certain colors – yellow, brown etc. which are considered to be colors reserved for monks. Monks and priests have a special place in Thai society and there are special provisions for them at every public place – reserved seating in public transport, special lounges and security pass through at airports, respect among locals, and other privileges. From the palace, we walked to Wat Pho, an artfully decorated Buddha temple. The solace is to be found only in the atrium of such temples and the place is ideal for moments of peace, away from worldly worries, in the lap of spirituality. It's one of the largest temple complexes in the city and famed for its giant reclining Buddha that measures 46 meters long and is covered in gold leaf. The temple compound is also the national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage, a mandate legislated by Rama III when the tradition was in danger of extinction.
Army Procession out of the Grand Palace
Grand Palace - An Insider View
We took a cab from this point to the Sleeping Buddha, also known as the Golden Buddha. A climb of over 1000 steps, small and well maintained, is definitely worth the views on offer from the top. From the temple room, you have a panoramic view of the city across the Bangkok skyline. All these views, when you right in the devotion of the god, really provide a divine experience. We spent a good half hour in the temple and then descended back for a second trip to Terminal 21. The purpose, this time, was to catch a good lunch at one of the thousands of food outlet in this mega mall. After lunch, we took a short ride on the Sky Train to experience the famed public transport system. The ride was very similar to what we have on Delhi Metro and things like these are enough to realize the progress that India has made in many terms. Post this we returned to the hotel to pick our luggage and took the transfer to the Airport. After check-in and immigration, which was quick and smooth, we explored the airport which is comparatively huge in its expanse. The area, especially the shopping halls, are bigger than many airports I have seen – including Delhi’s T3, Chicago’s O’hare and Abu Dhabi’s International Airport. We took our flight to Delhi and landed at about 9 PM on May 16th to mark the end of our Anniversary trip. It is back to the daily routine of life but the memories we picked during this special trip would remain with us for long and we would reminisce the time spent together for life.

Thailand : Krabi's Jewels of Arabian - Phi Phi Islands



This was the third day of our trip and we had planned a tour to Krabi region to get into depths of nature. The region is a collection of islands separated by each other by the Arabian Sea in between. Because of its uniqueness and importance in the trip, I decided to give it due credit by dedicating a separate article in itself. On 13th of May, we left the bed early enough to be ready in time to allow a good breakfast before we were at the pick point. The tour operator was there to pick us up on time and we were driving towards the pier on another side of the island by about 8 AM. We were there at the boat launch station by about 9 and waiting for everyone to collect. The operator had made arrangements for tea and snacks as refreshments before we embarked on our roller coaster ride.

Krabi Province, which lies along the coast of the Andaman sea in Southern Thailand, is a top tourist destination as a result of its plentiful natural attractions including, white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, extensive coral reefs, numerous caves and waterfalls, and over 130 islands, including Koh Lanta and the jewels of the Andaman coast, the six islands of Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park. Out of these islands, Phi Phi has gained special importance owing to its location and development as tourist site. It is because of the unique natural beauty which has earned them the title of “Jewels of Arabian Sea”. The day was going to offer us first-hand experience of these treasured destinations and we were excited for all that was to come on the tour.

As scheduled, there was a short briefing to introduce the tour, the points to be covered, protocols and rules for the boat. We were also given a crash course on snorkeling and the way to use all the equipment. This was also the time when they offered us to buy snorkeling accessories (additional consumables), water proof pouches and fins. We rented fins for snorkeling and water proof pouch for mobile – who would miss opportunity to captures scenes from underwater. A forewarning for those who visit next is that fins are not a necessary item and the do not help prevent the injuries that the tour operator may show to create fear. The entire group was divided into four teams and were assigned to different boats. We boarded boat – a smashing bright speed boat all ready to sway away from the shores. In nick of time we got ourselves the front deck which was open air and provided a surround panoramic views of crystal clear water with islands in backdrop.

We moved ahead in the earmarked section and settled down with our caps and sun screens on to prevent of the blazing sun. The boat was stocked with enough cola and water, chilled over ice, to cater to everlasting thirst. As the boat launched and gathered momentum on rough seas, the adrenaline gushed through the nerves and thrill of the ride rose to its peak. We looked through the curving boundaries of the boat to enjoy the nature in its pure raw form seemingly wooing us towards itself. The speeding vessel left marine flora and land masses behind and finally slowed down after about an hour of swinging ups-and-turns near a famed piece of land – Money Beach. The apes playing around the trees and on sands of the clean beach were a scene to look at. The monkeys live in the mountains and have figured out that where there is people there is likely to be food. The boat kept away from the shores to prevent any injuries that these monkeys have caused to tourists in the past. 

Monkeys on The Beach
Post this, the boat sailed into deeper seas and anchored by a stop point to wrangle itself in roped supports. The purpose of this stop was to offer a wonderful chance to delve into marine life and enjoy the free movement of the water birds – fishes – in their natural environment. Yes, this was the snorkeling spot. We got into our gear – pushed fins, put on swimwear, adjusted the breathing support - and took the dive. The hour long experience was a great adventure and we made the most of the opportunity. We swam with the fishes, observed the plantation deep under sea and spent time with nature and its creations. I am sure no one was ready to leave the waters when the guide blew his whistle to announce time to board the boat.

It was time for lunch and the hunger worms were gradually making their voice heard. So rightly timed came the next stop – the lunch on an island. This was the title attraction of the tour – Phi Phi Don Island. The beach is beautiful with soft white sand, clear waters and long view of calm seas. We were guided to one of the eating joints at the island which had a regular buffet – designed to cater to people comfortable with not-so-vegetarian food and had a good number of sea food item on menu. We requested for a vegetarian option and the staff brought some fried rice and fruits to our help. The food was mediocre at best but the location made all the difference. We enjoyed the filling treat and then moved to the boat for our next destination.

We rode through the maze of islands and land masses maneuvering in sometimes-narrow-waterways to reach the heaven on earth. What laid in front of us was nothing short of divine beauty wrapped in calm, clean and serene setting. The white sand on the beach spread across the shore until the view allowed, the crystal clear waters provided direct view of what lay beneath them and careful maintenance of the setting made itself evident that a tourist spot was so immaculate. We played in water, rested on sand and gazed at the wonder God has created so carefully. The long view of the bay with high land structures giving way to the giant sea was mesmerizing in its true sense. After absorbing the scenic beauty in front of us the captain sailed the boat towards the rough seas. 

Clear Waters Till The View Allows
After another 40-45 minutes of sea smashing ride we arrived at the last spot of the day. This was the Khasi beach which was relatively touristy and rushy, probably because of the role it played for most tour operators. This was a place to relax and enjoy nature at your own pace. Most boats docked at this island to allow tourists time to refresh themselves in lap of nature before heading back to their hotels. There are local touts who charge for chairs to sit on the beach. Our operator too meekly guided us to one of the chairs and only on stern confrontation yielded to arrange one for us. We were served freshly cut watermelons and pine apples right on the beach front and the chilled coke was still available to save us from the sun. We had a good one hour of sea gazing after which we proceeded to the snorkeling area towards the deeper side of water. Another round of snorkeling was pleasurable but the tiredness of the body was calling us to head towards rest. After about an hour and half’s stop, the guide asked us to move back to the boat. Once loaded, the boat headed straight to the shores where it picked us up in the morning. It was a bumpy 40 minute ride to the island of Phuket which was our home for the time being. We arrived at the shores by about 4 in the evening and were transferred to our hotels. By 5, we were saddled in our beds, recuperating our bodily strengths of another round of city exploration later in the evening.

It was really a day that would be with us for years to come and the memories picked up on this day long tour are nothing short of precious treasures. The wonders of the nature are seldom matched by any human creation and this trip was just another testimony of this fact. True it was exhausting, agree we were tired at the end of the day, but the fact is that this was because of our attempts at grasping and accumulating such vastness of beauty into such a compressed timeframe. Satiation from such a pristine setting would take lifelong of time or may be multiple lives itself. So, we were ending the day at such high note, fully content with the way the day was spent and slowly went into deep slumber reminiscing the cherished moments.

Thailand : Phuket - Divine Serenity on Earth


As a destination to celebrate our first marriage anniversary, we had chosen Phuket as the treasured corner of the world. This was the place where we were to spend the day cozying up to each other away from the world. As planned, we landed at the Phuket Airport on the afternoon of May, 11th 2016 – the day on which we began our new life exactly a year ago. We went hand in hand towards the exit in the excitement of embracing the calm serenity of the beach destination.

Located about 100 kilometers south of Bangkok, Phuket is the largest island of Thailand. Swanked by the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean region, the island is famed for its natural beauty, relaxed way of life, calmness, and distant hustle. It has today become the most popular tourist destination in South-east Asia. Besides the rich natural heritage that Phuket enjoys, there is equally bustling nightlife that abounds here. The city is prominently a night city and wakes only post noon and stays awake until post-midnight. Shops and tourist areas are open until late at night as are the restaurants and shopping malls. The city overall is a perfect destination for a relaxed vacation amidst nature and fun. 



As we exited the airport, we found the MakeMyTrip representative waiting with our name tag waiting to receive us. We were moved into our hotel transfer and we started our journey towards the hotel which was some distance from the airport. After about an hour and a half’s drive, we entered the driveway of Holiday Inn Express – our abode for next three day. The outlook of the facility was impressive as it stood tall on a wide road leading up to the beach, hardly a few yards away from it. The hotel was located in an ideal location amidst the local fanfare, besides the lane of tourist shops and near other spots of tourist interest. The hotel itself was a limited service facility with no bell boys or room service. The in-house restaurant only serves breakfast – complimentary with the room. We checked into the hotel and moved to our room – 7408. The building housing our room was located towards the rear end of the premises and had other resorts in the view. We settled in the room and freshened up to shed the tiredness of the journey.

After some snacks and coffee, we left the hotel for a stroll across the beach. The reception provided us with a detailed map of the island and marked key locations on the map for us. We walked across the road to the beach and saw the corn vendor baking fresh corns. The temptation could not have been overlooked, and we headed straight to the vendor counter. The hot corn with cool sea breeze was a wonderful combination. We walked by the sea water and covered a couple of kilometers of the Phuket’s Patong Beach absorbing the rich natural beauty and long views of the sea. On our stroll back we chose a relatively silent spot to settle down and spend some moments amidst the evening view of setting the sun. After about an hour in the perfect setting, we headed back to the hotel. On our way back, we picked some snacks, coke and bakery from the grocery store so that we are stocked for late night fun. After dinner, we took another walk by the touristic spots to experience the nightlife of the effervescent town.

Calmness of Evening
Next morning, we readied ourselves for a trip around the city on a half-day tour. The tour was preceded by a heavy breakfast at the hotel post which, we began our shared tour. The tour began with a general introduction to the city and its various aspects. It took us on a drive through the entire stretch of Patong beach, Karon beach, and Kata beach. Out first stop on the tour was the Karon View Point or Three Beach View which provided an unobstructed view of the three beaches – Karon, Kata and Kata Noy beach. Noy indicates a smaller extension of the main beach which generally is relatively less rushed. We spent about half an hour at the location trying various poses and pictures to capture the rich natural beauty.

Next point of attraction where we stopped was the activity center which provided numerous options to tourists for experiencing nature. The center offered elephant rides through the forest, animal shows and ATV riding thrill. We chose the ATV option as it was something we had not tried earlier. We had a chance to take the sturdy ride through rough terrains, designed for the safety of tourists. The thrill of speed, bumpy turns, and dusty air – all combined to give us a never before fun experience. By the end of half an hour ride, we were content, gushing with adrenaline and longing for more. However, one has to realize that there is a point when one needs to move on and so did we, to our next point of interest.

We passed through the Sino Village, a local Thai traditional community, which showcased the life of rural part of the country. While the bigger cities have adopted the modern style of life with worldly luxuries, the traditional life is to be seen in such villages. Next, we saw the Muay Thai Boxing Camp. Muay Thai is a traditional martial arts form of Thailand and is a popular sport. The furious punches, crushing elbow strikes, lethal kicks and artful feints have gained acknowledgment across the world. This particular camp was especially important because of its history in locality and importance in providing a platform to local budding artists. After about half an hour of the drive across the roads on this island city, we finally stopped at a religious center – Wat Chalong.

The Grand Pagoda dominating the temple contains a splinter of Lord Buddha's bone and is officially named Phramahathatchedi-Jomthaibarameepragat. The pagoda is decorated with wall paintings depicting the Buddha's life story and also features various Buddha images. Take your time in the pagoda; it is a breezy, cool location and one which is very popular with visitors to the temple. The top of the four-floor building providing mesmerizing views of the town along with a clear view of the Big Buddha, which is another popular location amongst tourists. One must be careful of the traditions and beliefs while visiting such places of religious interests and local devotees hold them very close to themselves. One may be required to remove shoes at some places or may need to wear a sarong or scarf to enter some places. It is important to take such requirements sportingly as a respect to local beliefs and not take them as an offense. We also bought some refreshments at this place and refilled our water stocks as the sun was attempting its best with scorching heat waves.
Friendly Cats of Thailand
The spot we visited next had a charm of its own as the places offering such a chance are limited in number. We visited the Tiger Kingdom of Phuket which had tigers at various lifecycle stages – from newborn kids to large cats. Now, I know there are these cats in every zoo across the world and many tiger reserves. What made this collection of tigers special was the relative location of the animal and spectator. Every other reserve has some kind of separation between man and the cat – either one of them is in a cage. However, here, we were guided into the tiger enclosure and were asked to be friends with one. We were allowed to play with the head of the cat family and the tiger graciously took pictures with us, in multiple poses. While initially we had our apprehensions, we eased out to our host as time passed. The over half hour we spent with them, it was thrilling and exciting time. Once we left the Tiger Kingdom, the tour took us through a gem factory which showcased varied types of gems based on the sources and kind of water the shell was found in. Post this we went to a souvenir shop to pick some memorabilia. This marked the end of the tour and we returned to the hotel for some rest after the long hectic day. In the evening, we went back to the beach to enjoy some good moments over waves and snacks. Later we had a sumptuous Indian dinner at a local restaurant named “Tantra” – a well laid out place in traditional Indian colors and them providing an option of ground seating cushions.

Next day on 13th of May, we had planned a Phi Phi Island day long excursion. The tour took us through 4 islands in Krabi region providing glimpses of the aquatic life and clean beaches. The speedboat ride through the Indian Ocean region and snorkeling in deep seas was definitely a high point of the visit. The day long trip was exhausting yet fun. I would cover the details of the tour as a separate post. After returning, we went to a good Thai restaurant attached to Araya Resorts where we had awesome noodles and spring rolls over live music and great views. Post the dinner we spent leisure moments by the hotel pool and enjoyed our time together.

Beauty of Setting Sun
The last day in Phuket was marked with mixed feelings of leaving a great destination for another city to be covered on the trip. We woke up early to catch onto whatever time we had in the town. We went for yet another beach walk – this time, to absorb the morning view of the sunrise and the early inactivity in this town which by no means was an early riser. After the walk we packed our bags and checked out of the hotel, ready for our transfer back to the airport. We spent about an hour at the airport, checking into the flight, passing the security checkpoint and window shopping. Phuket’s is a relatively small airport housing limited number of shops and servicing a limited number of flights every day. For the size of the airport, the rush was definitely more than what it was designed for. Finally, the announcement was made and we boarded our Thai Airways flight to Bangkok.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Thailand - The Journey: Flight and Visa on Arrival



It was our First Anniversary coming up and I was sure that no excuse would work to prevent a trip to celebrate the occasion. The excitement can only be elicited by the fact that I was supposed to land in India after a 25-hour trans-Atlantic flight less than 24aa hours of the planned take-off for the trip. However, I was up to the task without much hesitation and hence the plan for the trip begun building out. Out of many potential destinations, we finally decided on Thailand which was the only place which offered moderate weather along with the right ingredients – beach, calm and nightlife. Once the destination was set, we completed the bookings – flights and hotels. We also planned a day tour to Phi Phi islands and made bookings in advance. Rest of the trip was left open as we wanted to take things as they come, at our own pace. Thus, the itinerary was set and we were ready to embark on the trip. The only thing left was for me to return from the US Trip.

Thailand is an exotic South East Asian country bordered by Malaysia to the South, Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the West, Laos to the North and Cambodia in the East. The Kingdom country is a famed tourist destination in the region and boasts of offering spiritual richness, natural beauty, and vibrant lifestyle. Equally important to the touristic interests is the Thai food and Thai hospitality. Thai people are friendly, hospitable and of a happy disposition. They are extremely proud of the fact they are the only country in the region which was never colonized. About 90 % of the population belong to the Buddhist faith and this has given Thailand, a country of 65 million, a durable continuity through historical upheavals.

Meanwhile in India, wifey had packed the bags with the exception of stuff that needed to shift from incoming bags. Now, limited overlap in the wardrobe for a business trip to the chilling US and leisure vacation to Thailand definitely helped in preparing for the trip in advance. I landed on the night of 9th of May and was home by about midnight. After few hours of boisterous welcome and exchange of trip experiences, we were quick to realize that a lot had to be done in time for our upcoming trip. Hectic preparations then set in. Next morning we had an early start and finalized luggage – packed, bagged and tagged. All set for the adventure, we booked the cab to leave home, late on 10th evening. But there was something we didn’t have in mind, which occurred before we proceeded for the vacation.



Thai Air Plane Ready to Take us off

The family had planned a small celebration for marking the event and were armed with gifts, cake and enthusiasm right before we were supposed to leave. Spending those moments with the family was definitely worth a ton and we had a nice little family party. There was cake cutting, there were sweet wishes, there was singing and there was enjoyment – all around loads of happiness. Once the celebration concluded, it was time to bid goodbyes. The cab was honking from somewhere below our house alerting us to the ticking clock. We loaded the bags on the cab and thus begun a long looked forward trip.

We were there at the famed T3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport by about midnight and had a good 3 hours before our flight. We checked into the flight and passed through the immigration formalities. Check in at the Thai counter was prompt, courteous and smooth with the smiling lady at the counter wished us a good journey. We moved forward to the customs desk and completed the immigration documentation. Having “departed” stamped on the passports we were officially out of the country. We spent some time in the shopping zone and then headed to the first-floor airport lounge by Plaza Platinum and had a start to the trip in luxury over free food, drinks, and nice seating. This was technically our second dinner for the evening but we were not complaining. By the time we finished feasting, it was time to move to the gates and boarding time was soon approaching. In the meantime, the call from dad mentioning heavy rainfall in the city raised apprehensions of a timely departure of the flight. However, there was no indication of a delay at the departure gates and boarding started on time. The process was smooth and we were allowed to board in sequence based on the row numbers, but only after the premium class passengers boarded the flight. Finally, we were seated, comfortably, on the plane. As the flight taxied off the parking bay and proceeded on the runaway, the excitement of the good times to come rose exponentially.

First Look of Islands Around Phuket
The plane itself seemed pretty new and was immaculate from inside. The interiors were nice and seats were standard – with adjustable headrests and side support for sleeping. The window panes had a novel system of operation rather than the usual sliding panes. There was a grading switch which blackened the vacuum between the glass panes and effectively shut down the external light. The entire arrangement was fascinating as I had seen something like that for the first time. Soon after the takeoff, we were served fresh wet towels to freshen up then a full meal was serviced. The meal was much better than what I had for my flights earlier in the month. The service onboard was brilliant and the attendants were responsive and supporting. The four and half hour flight was smooth and uneventful post the meal service. Before the descent began, the crew distributed arrival and departure card for passport control in Thailand. We landed in Bangkok at about 7 AM local time and raced out of the plane. We had a good 3 hours layover in Bangkok before our connecting flight to Phuket however, we were still to be authorized to enter Thailand – Visa Stamping.
We headed to the arrivals and transfer hall where adequately marked “Visa on Arrival” directions guided us to the right place. There is a helpdesk to answer all queries and provide support with stationary and other requirements. There is a photo booth next to the helpdesk in case someone forgets to bring their own snaps. We luckily had them ready. The only thing we needed was the currency. The nearby foreign exchange counter of SMB promptly converted our USDs to Thai Bhat. The rate was probably lower than the market rate but then one could expect that at airports. We were required to fill in a form with details of arrival, stay, and purpose of the visit. The passport size photographs went on this form. The helpdesk stapled the photos for us. We already had our arrival-departure card filled in. Ready with the documentation we went ahead to the counters. The entire process is simple and systematic. There are separate counters for those having connecting flights to Thai cities to avoid the rush on regular counters. We had the luxury of avoiding the rush this way. The officer on the counter verifies your documents, collects the fees and provides a receipt. Passports are collected at this counter. You are then directed to a waiting area where passports are brought in batches and distributed after stamping. In all, it took about half an hour for the entire process post which we had stamped passports in our hand.

Landing in Phuket - by the Sea
Once the Visa was in our hands, we went towards the domestic terminal for our connecting flight. At this point, we had enough time on our hands and we took our own time strolling through the airport. We eased through the passport control and officially entered the Kingdom of Thailand. We had a quick lunch at the Airport and reached the boarding gates in time to embark onto the aircraft. We had to cross the security check before reaching the gates as were now using a different terminal from the one we arrived at. This was relatively an empty flight with quite a few seats open after the gates closed. The Airbus 330 was again a well-maintained plane and staff extended the Thai hospitality in its true sense. Soon we were served refreshments onboard which was a nice little sandwich and coffee. IN about an hour the captain announces beginning of descent and we prepped ourselves for the touchdown into our first destination. After disembarkation from the plane, we proceeded to arrivals and baggage claim. It was only after a short wait that we realized that belt at which we stood by was meant for domestic passengers while we were being considered international passengers and had to collect our luggage from special enclosures. Once we had our luggage, it was scanned on large machines and on clearance we exited the airport and thus began the first leg of our journey. More details about our time in Phuket would be covered as a separate post.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Spaceport of India - ISRO’s Launch Facility at Sriharikota


An important road trip that we undertook from Chennai was to the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) where Indian Space Research Organization has the Sriharikota High Altitude Range (SHAR) rocket launching center. This was an exciting trip where we traveled out of this world, literally, as we glanced past the amazing set-up where space vehicles are assembled and launched for their journey into outer space. We left our home at about 8 in the morning of December 23rd, 2015. What excited us was not only this rare opportunity to observe rocket launching facility from close quarters but also the scenic journey to the SHAR campus. 


SHAR campus is situated on an island in the Bay of Bengal with strategic purposes of avoiding civilian contact, securing the facilities and exploiting supportive weather conditions. The island is connected to the mainland by a narrow long road which takes you through the Pulicat Lake and Bird Sanctuary on the way. This sanctuary is famous as the habitat of cranes during the season we visited. The Pulicat sanctuary is drained by Arni River while the Buckingham canal brings in the city’s drainage water. At the southern end is an opening onto the Bay of Bengal through a shallow mouth of 200 m in width. The rest of the lake is closed by a sand bar running parallel to the Bay of Bengal in the form of the Sriharikota Island. We were at the entry of this narrow road after about 3 hours of a drive during which we passed through the dam on Red Hills and cross Kalinga River on the National Highway connecting Chennai with Kolkata. It was only after crossing the Sriharikota town that we found ourselves cruising on a road, long and narrow, with water body on both sides. The water at times would get along with land to create marshlands where specific vegetation thrived. It was not long after the town that we saw birds of various form and nature. Among the most spectacular was the flamingo, a tall gaunt, white-colored bird with a touch of pink on the wings, pink beak, and legs, seen feeding in shallow water. The squat, large-billed gray pelican with gular pouch was another interesting attraction. Flocks of seagulls and terns circling in the sky or bobbing up and down on the water added to the beauty of the scene. We spent some time there admiring the rich fauna and beauty of the entire set-up. After about another hour of the journey, we were there at the entry check-post of the elite ISRO facility – Satish Dhawan Space Center. 



SDSC is a strategically important establishment of ISRO where PSLV and GSLV based launch vehicles are assembled and launched. The center also caters to the preparation of solid propellant stage for the launch vehicles. The center has two launch pads to cater to rocket launching operations supported by a world class mission control center. It has the necessary infrastructure for launching satellites into the low earth, polar and geostationary transfer orbits. The launch complexes provide complete support for vehicle assembly, fueling, checkout and launch operations. Apart from these, it also has facilities for launching sounding rockets meant for studying the earth's atmosphere. The center has gained importance in recent times as ISRO has started providing services to other countries. ISRO has until now launched over 50 satellite into space, both for domestic and international clients. The success of this center is elucidated by the heavy demand that this facility has witnessed. The launch frequency has doubled up in 4-5 years from one in 40 days to one in 20 days. The facility is launching one vehicle every month on an average. This has led to pressure on resources and the two launch pads are now almost always under operations with limited downtime available post-launch. The demand is so high that the operation cannot even rest during rains and specially designed campus allows super-quick drainage of water. The facility has its own metrological department to monitor weather conditions. The campus houses many observation decks to monitor launch operations. There is also the deepest penetrating radar of India called Mobile Object Tracking Radar – MOTR. This has over 100 kilometers of range and ensures that the path of the launch vehicle is clear from disturbances.

Immediately after breakfast, we proceeded to our first point of interest – The First Launch Pad. The design of this launchpad is based on a concept of Mobile Service Tower (MST) where the assembly building is a movable tower which travels on special rails and places itself next to the launch vehicle during its assembly. Heavy motors are used for the movement of MST over the 200-meter track. The 3450-ton building moves at a speed of about 7 meters per minute on a support of 8 wheels supporting 4 bogies. The integration and assembly of the launch vehicle are a time-consuming affair and hence, the MST is designed to protect the launch vehicle during the entire process. The design, made in 1980, provides this 76-meter building with 16 fixed platforms and large protective doors allowing it to cover the launch vehicle during assembly. We visited the launch pedestal which has centrally located angular structure used to hold the rocket. The steel structure is refurbished with silicon based rubber insulation as bare steel with melting temperature of 1500 Degree Celsius cannot withstand launch flame of 3000 Degree Celsius. The insulation has been designed in-house by ISRO’s chemical engineers. As soon as the launch is complete, water jets are used to cool the platform to prevent any long term damage to the structure. All the equipment used within the MST is flameproof including a landline phone device which costs over 1.5 Lakh. The entire assembly crew is required to wear special clothing, when on work. Additionally, there are four 120 meter high lightning towers to protect the vehicle from any damage during thunderstorms. There is a mobile tower located at about 100 meters from the MST to facilitate communication during assembly. This is an ambulatory tower and is relocated during launches. During a launch, 4 hours prior to actual launch time (T-4), complete evacuation from the launch pad (LP) area is ensured to prevent any loss of life. This launch pad is specially designed for four stage PSLV launches. The design of four stage PSLV includes a satellite on top with a solid propellant stage below it, which takes 105 seconds to burn. The satellites are manufactured/assembled at ISRO’s Bangalore facility while the first stage is prepared at SHAR facility itself. The next stage is of liquid propellant, filled in after assembly during countdown because of its hazardous nature. There is a mechanism which separates each stage once the fuel of the stage is exhausted, based on height achieved by the vehicle. The liquid stage comes from Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu, a small city near Kanyakumari.

After covering the First Launch Pad, we proceeded towards the Second Launch Pad which is an engineering marvel in itself. This launch pad was dedicated to the nation by the Missile Man – Dr. Kalam himself. It is different from the first one in its basic design itself. At the first launch pad, the vehicle assembly building moves to the assembly and umbilical tower where the vehicle remains fixed. However, at the second launch pad, the assembly building is fixed and the vehicle moves on a mobile platform. We had the pleasure of witnessing a live assembly during our trip. There are specially designed bogies where the assembly of the entire launch vehicle takes place. The base structure is placed on the bogie and it is then moved into the assembly building through huge gates. Here, the entire assembly of the vehicle takes place where the fuel units and other components are put together to complete the vehicle. The assembly building is about 100 m high and assembles the launch vehicle of about 40 m height. All the assembly takes place while the vehicle is mounted on the bogie. There are platforms at various levels in the assembly building which can be vertically moved to adjust according to requirements. This is another difference from the first launch pad where the platform levels were fixed. Once the assembly is completed, the bogie takes the vehicle to the umbilical tower or UL where it is readied for launch. While we were there, the crew was busy preparing a PSLV for launch. This particular vehicle was developed by Mencken for ISRO and was designed to place the fifth IRNSS satellite in space. This would strengthen the capability of our in-house GPS system – Read More at . Once the entire assembly is completed the vehicle is moved to the launch area and set up within the umbilical tower. The Mobile Launch Pad or MLP is used for the purpose.

Once we completed our tour of the assembly building for 2nd Launch Pad, we went ahead to explore the launch facility. The platform is capable to launch both GSLV and PSLV based vehicles. An elevator takes you to a height of 18 meters where metaled platforms provide an exciting site to base on. The entire view consists of machinery and wires and tubes. There are four umbilical towers that run in to feed the vehicle with necessary inputs – Propellant (which includes fuel and oxidizer), Gas (through motor turbine operations to generate pressure for ignition), cooling agent and electronic connections. There is a special water storage to support the acoustic suppression mechanism. Another ride in the elevator takes you to 70-meters height, which is the crane level – a 10-ton crane is based on this level.

Next spot on our tour of this marvelous ISRO facility was a plant shaped building built strategically to allow a clear line of sight view of the launch pads, which are about 5 kilometers from here. This building is nerve center of operations related to any satellite launch and is connected to both the launch pads through communication links which are protected by heavy concrete structures, designed to withstand launch impact. It houses Launch Control Center (LCC) and Mission Control Center (MCC). LCC handles the initial preparation and facilitation of launch and controls fueling, testing and verification of the launch vehicle. Once the vehicle is ready for launch and has been fueled in, control is transferred to the MCC. MCC is responsible for managing the launch and flight path until 25 minutes post launch. Directors sit in the last row of the center with the exception of the TTC director who sits a row ahead wand is charged with the responsibility to monitor weather and telemetry. ISRO has established multiple monitoring stations around the world to capture real-time weather and other relevant parameters and avoid communication delays. The SHAR center also has its own metrological unit which givers real-time weather updates. Prelaunch special balloons with sensors are sent into the atmosphere to gather temperature, wind speed and other weather parameters to assess if weather conditions are apt for a launch.

The countdown starts 50 hours before a launch (T-50hr). This is the time when LCC springs into action and begins preparation of vehicle for launch. An hour before the launch (T-1hr) the control of the vehicle is transferred to the MCC where a well-choreographed process manages the launch operations. A half hour before the launch (T-1/2 hour), a readiness signal is given out by 6 radars spread throughout the campus. Once everything is apt for the launch, final launch authorization is given at T-17min post which an automated sequence of events take place. Post authorization, the entire module is handled by computers powered by artificial intelligence. Once the launch is successful and the vehicle maintains the correct path for 25 minutes, the control is transferred to Satellite Control Center (SCC) in Bangalore where the satellite is monitored continuously. Once the launch is over the launch area is kept out of bounds based on the launch platform. For GSLVs, the crew is allowed in launch arm only after a day while for PSLVs, the security team analyzes the pollution level from one hour after launch and crew is only allowed in once the pollution dips past the acceptable levels. 


One would assume that this definitely is a critical facility for strategic interests for India and hence security provisions for SHAR center need to be top-notch. CISF has the responsibility of securing the campus from the very start. Current strength of security personnel is 1000 and there are over 12 watch towers across campus for CISF to monitor the area. Night and day specific binoculars and goggles are used by the personnel. Security personnel are sourced from across the country to prevent collusion and sabotage. Special surveillance equipment to monitor any breach through surrounding waterbodies have been set up. The location itself has been chosen strategically as an island is dedicated to ISRO operations and no unauthorized person is allowed. Shores are easier to monitor than land and hence the island. 

At the end of the visit, we also visited the Space Museum maintained by ISRO. It brings together interesting memorabilia from the past, various spacecraft designs and a gamut of useful information. After covering this last spot we bid goodbye to the staff at the center and left the campus for our way back towards home. We were back in the nest by 5 in the evening and readied for our train later in the night to proceed to next destination – Queen of Hills: Ooty !!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Munnar – Southern Spice or Honeymooner’s Paradise


We woke up early on the morning of December 26th, 2015 because of the excitement. We were going to the most sought after Keralite Destination – Munnar. Munnar is a popular hill station and attracts tourists from far and wide. The hill station covers a significant area of the Western Ghats located at an altitude of 5000 to 8000 feet above sea level. The destination is situated at the confluence of a three-mountain stream - Mudrapuzha, Nallathani & Kundala.

We started from our rest house in Pollachi after a heavy breakfast and were driving away from this beautiful town by about 8 AM. The road taking us away from Pollachi had an amazing set-up for a few kilometers. The trees on both sides of the road were maintained in such a way that they came together at the top. This created an arch-like gate structure of trees which continued for at least a couple of kilometers. This illusion created by greenery was indeed a pleasure to the eyes. The entire route seemed to be bestowed with the best of nature. Our journey continued and so did our attempt to capture each glimpse of nature. After about an hour and a half’s drive, we stopped at our first point – The Monkey Falls. These are beautiful falls with three streams culminating towards the end to give an illusion of jumping water. The effect is almost magical in visuals. We went right into the water and stood there with whirls of chilled water for some time. You can go and take a bath too if you wish. After having a good share of fun in the fall, we decided to move ahead with the journey towards our next destination.

A Video on our journey from Pollachi to Munnar


Soon, we found ourselves entering into dense forests and the path ahead was a relatively narrow road curving between the green cover. We were passing through the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, which is a part of the Project Tiger and is there protected to preserve the natural habitat for the jungle cat. As, we continued on the path and crossed the borders to Kerala, the name of the forest changes to Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. The protected area is located on the foothills of Annamalai Hills and covers over 90 square kilometers of area. There are options to trek into the forest and guided tours take you through the wilderness of flora and fauna. Contrary to various other wildlife reserves, there is no formal safari provision here. Occasional spotting of tigers are more in stories now and dwindling tiger population is a reality to be seen when you visit these reserves. We saw a Tusker crossing roads and we decided to give the first right of way to the “resident”, in the interest of capturing the giant animal through the lens. When we stopped at a forest checkpoint, a monkey decided that the best way to travel across forest is on a car-top and occupied its place on our car. We asked the driver to be careful and move slow, and we traveled together for a couple of kilometers when the free creature decided it was time to take farewells from new friends. A few kilometers ahead, the driver stopped the car to show us a wild gaur (oxen) roaming in its own land. Through the way, we spotted a number of interesting birds on the tree tops.

Our next stop was the fruit orchards where we stopped to admire the systematic and commercial plantation of exotic fruits over vast areas. It was developed and managed to allow tourist visits. They charged a nominal visiting charges and visitors are allowed to stroll through a narrow pathway. One can take a round of the designated region of the plantation and fruits hanging from trees on both sides of the path provide a lovely view. We saw a number of fruits from oranges to Kerala bananas to other unheard fruits during the half hour we stayed there. They had also built out a wooden watchtower which became a point of interest for all tourists. No one could have missed climbing onto the structure to have a wide-angle view of the entire area along with a few nice clicks.

The path through thick forests
Beautiful waterfall on the way
As the journey ensued, we passed through Marayoor Sandalwood Forests and noticed heavy security provisions with numerous checkpoints. Both, entry into and exit out of the forests required careful scrutiny of the vehicle by the forest guards. The locals informed us that these forests are key targets of smugglers to illegally source sandalwood. Remember the famed dacoit Veerappan, the curved moustache guy who made fortunes by smuggling this wood. Our next stop was a beautiful waterfall. This not so popular spot on the tourist map had a unique charm of raw untouched beauty. There was a pond into which the water from the fall collected before proceeding on its further journey downhill. This pond provides a wonderful opportunity to play and bath in the water. There is also a small hiking opportunity to climb the rocks beside the falls to ascend to some height of the falling water. The view of the falls from the top of this hike is simply breathtaking.

Then we stopped at The Anamudi peak for a view of the entire valley from a bird's eye position. Located at about 2600 meters above sea level, it is the highest peak in the Western Ghats and the viewpoint developed at the peak provides a great place to sit and admire the beauty of nature. As we approached Munna, the scenery took a completely unique form. The slopes of the hill were covered with tea plantations and the same extended to as far and wide as the human eye could capture. The bed of tea plantation created an illusion of green carpet spread across the hills and provided a very attractive view. No amount of words or pictures can ever capture the true essence of divinity that one finds gushing through the body. It almost seemed like a heaven descending on Earth. We stopped at one of the tea plantations for some pictures. Our last stop on this leg of the journey was Lakkham Falls, just short of an hour journey from Munnar. With a height of over 50 feet, this wide and scenic waterfall is situated in a dense forest. The waterfall is formed by Eravikulam Stream, which is originated in the Eravikulam National Park. This stream is a tributary of Pambar River, which ultimately merges into River Cauvery.

Tea plantations - lush green natural carpet
We reached Munnar by 4 in the evening and were checked into our room at the KTDC’s Tea County resort. We had a room located towards the high end of the resort. The room was well set-up and nicely equipped with all that one could expect in a premium resort. The service was courteous and prompt. Considering that it was a government owned and run facility, we were really impressed by the management. It was here that we were united with the entire family – Mom Dad and bro came in from Chennai to join us for a couple of days on our visit. After a long family reunion – over late lunch and stories from vacation until then – we freshened up and readied to explore the city. We walked out of the resort and strolled through the busy roads towards the city center. We spent sometimes crisscrossing the local markets and finally gave in to the taste buds when we saw a small shop showcasing bakery products. The shop was run by a lady who served us delicious home cooked marble cake. The lady was really sweet and was eclectic to know that we enjoyed the cake cooked by her. Later in the evening, we went to the hotel to admire the beautiful setup of the place. This was followed by dinner at the hotel where the spread though decent, lacked the quality to satiate our tastes. One could attribute this to their attempts at South Indian styled - North Indian dishes. After a long post-dinner walk, we retired to our rooms and went to sleep after a hot cup of tea.

Next day we had an early start to the day and went across for a customary walk through the hotel to absorb the beautiful view that the height and location of the hotel provided. It was indeed great to stroll across the cemented paths amidst the horticultural efforts. The view of clouds passing across the mighty hills and the beautiful sun rising behind them was marvelous. We headed to the breakfast post the walk and were pleasantly surprised at the spread. It was a very different experience compared to the one we had at dinner. We then proceeded to our next day of site seeing and, this time, had planned to cover things in the Mattupetty direction. We had decided to visit the tourist sites in an order opposite to what tourists generally took. We headed straight to the Top Station, the farthest tourist spot on the route, as our first site. Top station is the topmost peak of Munnar with the height of 1700 m. This peak forms a border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Trekking to this magnificent point offers you the view of the Western Ghats hill ranges and Theni district of Tamil Nadu. We spent a good one hour at the place trying to absorb as much of nature as we could. The hike had made us hungry and light snacks available from hawkers seemed lavish at the moment. We also bought some souvenirs from the local shops. The tea, especially, was available at such deep discounts that we could not help pick a few bags for people back home.

A Family Video From Site-Seeing in Munnar


As we moved towards Munnar, our next stop was a short halt at the Kandala Lake and Dam. A lot of water reservoirs for Dam are designated as lakes and developed as tourist spots. This was one of them. After a short stop, we proceeded to Echo Point, our next spot. We climbed down to the water reservoir to reach the specific spot where you can feel an echo of your voice. While the phenomenon may not be as evident as one would find at other echo points in India, the greenery where this point is nestled in, is definitely worth a visit to the spot. Next, we stopped at the Mattupetty Dam and Lake and climbed down to the lake to enjoy the view. The cold wind with tiny water droplets did feel refreshing. We enjoyed speed boat ride in the chilling waters of the lake. An assurance of a couple of hundreds in the tip was enough to persuade the boat driver to double the ride duration and to showcase special maneuvers. At the end of the ride, we were content that the more than an hour-long wait was worth the time.

We then moved to the Elephant Arrival Point, which took about another 20-minute drive which ended us in an enclosed zone by a hillock. We opted for an elephant ride here and got our chance in about 20 minutes. A Kerala Tusker came to pick us up and took us to the top of the hillock. The ride was indeed thrilling with the elephant climbing uphill at a relatively good pace while slowing down on the return path. Apparently, it is easier for elephants to climb up than climbing down. At the end of the ride, we were allowed to feed fruits to the elephant. There was a person selling fruit baskets and delivering them to the elephant back itself. We also saw the rose garden on our way back to the hotel. We were back to our hotel by about 5 in the evening. Mom-dad had taken a detour when we stopped at Mattupetty and had gone to see the Tea Museum. We missed it by minutes, but then the reviews from them did not make it feel as if we missed something important.

Long view of Mattupetty Dam's reservoir
Next we had planned to be at the famous local martial arts show – KALARIPPAYATTU. This is a traditional art form of Kerala and has long been considered a pretty sophisticated form of the art. The practitioners of the art have to undergo rigorous training for years before they are allowed to practice the moves. The show highlights the level of courage, the fitness of mind and body and devotion to the art. This art is performed in a “Kuzhikkalari” (earthen carving) by the artists and brings together a number of breathtaking moments. The viewers are treated to an imposing display of swirling swords, flying artists and sparking moves along with the rituals of offering deities their due respect. The hour-long show was a great thrill to watch. We ended the day with the dinner at the hotel – this time we opted for an a la carte custom made food which was much better than their buffet.

Next morning we had a relatively relaxed start and went for a long family walk around the contours of the resort. After enjoying the beauty of nature, we got ready for the next leg of site seeing. This time, it was in Thekkady direction which was any way our next destination. We packed our bags and checked out of the resort after a heavy breakfast. Our first stop of the day was Lock Heart Gap View. The location situated about 15 kilometers from Munnar satiates the inner desires of human – fresh mountain air with a panoramic view of the lush green Bason Valley in the background is heavenly. The place is an ideal scenic spot for any traveler on the route. Our next and final stop of Munnar was the Power House waterfalls with water gushing out from the craters creating a wonderful spot to stop by. Though railings prevent tourists from going too near to the falling water, the chilling water carrying its journey beyond the railings is enough to pleasure a tourist. After spending another half an hour at the spot, we parted ways with Mom-Dad and Amit, who proceeded to Cochin before returning to Chennai. We went ahead on our route to Thekkady to continue to trip.

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