A Week in Delhi, India, Part 1: 16 – 20.09.2013

Arriving into Delhi four hours later than we were expecting, thanks to train delays, I’d endured all the staring I felt I possibly could have and was grateful when the train finally pulled up in New Delhi station.  Packs heavy on our backs, we queued up (an Indian style queue, of course, which naturally involved cutting-in, pushing, shoving and no real order) and paid to leave our backpacks with the very inefficient and disinterested cloak room man.

Free of our packs, and still with no idea of what the hell our plan was now that we were here, we really needed to sort ourselves out. Firstly, we needed to post off the bag of stuff we’d accumulated in India and no longer wanted to carry around nor throw/give away, secondly, we needed to phone the Myanmar Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, and find out if we could apply for our visa there or if we’d have to do it here in India, and finally, we needed to call our couch surfing host and see if it was still okay for us to come along to her home. I was starting to question whether or not we should even bother couch surfing; I was ready to leave India and we contemplated just booking ourselves a flight to Nepal for tomorrow. However, we decided we needed to give Delhi a chance and both of us wanted to meet our couch surfing host, so we persevered.

Fighting our way through the crowds of touters and people obviously lying to our faces, we managed to find a public phone and call the Myanmar Embassy in Nepal, which promised we could organize our visas there within three working days. Done. I was in no mood to deal with anything in India that I didn’t have to at that moment. With the visa concern now resolved, we headed to Connaught’s Place –  a very rich area of Delhi filled with fancy shops and cafes and restaurants and well-dressed locals. We took solace briefly in a cafe and made a basic plan for what our next move would be; how much longer would we stay in India, when would we go to Nepal, should we get another iced coffee? All those sorts of difficult decisions that needed to be made.

With a bulging bag weighing me down, we decided out next priority was to post this bag of crap home. The post office was very near by, but of course that didn’t mean that the act of posting some items home was going to be a simple, stress-free, pain-free, hassle-free or quick process. But then again, by now I have learned that the above mentioned processes do not often exist here.

After I had gone to three counters, found myself a man who would wrap and sew my parcel together with calico and a needle and thread, found a pen, gone back to another two counters to get the correct piece of paper, gone back to the parcel sewing man, paid him and waited patiently whilst he sewed my already well-wrapped parcel shut, gone to another counter to attempt to find a felt-tip marker, found a marker, written the address, struggled to meet the requirements for a sender address in India (seeing as I am a tourist!), written a fake sender address, waited a bit more, filled out a form, waited in line a bit more, got told to fill in another form, waited a bit more, and then finally got told I had to go and get my visa and passport photocopied before the parcel could be sent, I realised that this whole “send my goods home to Australia thing” would not be so simple.
Down a few lane ways, in a shack under a leaking, damaged roof, a tiny Indian guy gladly photocopied my passport and visa for a whopping 10 rupees. Strutting back towards the counter with my documents, I was thinking this might actually be the end of the procedure and after more than an hour, my parcel might actually get processed, but no. It was then some cutting, some gluing (similar to primary school when the teachers give you the shitty, cheap glue that doesn’t stick to anything, except for the fact that in India they don’t even offer you a paint brush); I was forced to use my hands as a glue brush in an attempt to stick my very important documents to the material coating of my parcel that was about to travel across the world.
Handing over a parcel wrapped in calico that looked more like a kindergarten paper-mache/patchwork art work, I paid for the ‘slow service’ and watched as the staff member typed some information into a computer and then hurled my belongings over his shoulder onto the ground. My Indian post office ordeal was over… but who knows if that parcel will ever make it back to Australia.

Parcel sent, it was already mid afternoon and time to head out to our host’s home; a 50 minute train ride away. We were worried how we’d handle packed peak hour trains with our backpacks, especially after experiencing Mumbai’s metro madness…And then, after purchasing a ticket in a normal sort of way, we hopped onto a train that was not only modern, but also fast, clean and air conditioned; it very much reminded me of trains in Japan. For a second, I wondered if we were still in India, but then I saw a pile of men – one picking his nose – sitting all over each other on the designated ladies seat whilst three elderly women stood, and I was bought right back to reality.

At the station near by our host’s home, we were greeted with hugs and smiles. Her driver took us to her home, where we met her house mate Michiko who squealed with delight when she saw us and gave us a great big hug. Instantly, we felt at home.
Whilst we relaxed and showered – feeling disgusting after two days of not showering and sweating in the Indian heat – Masami and Michiko prepared us an incredible feast of home-cooked Indian curries. They invited their Japanese neighbour from upstairs, and together, the five of us enjoyed the company of new friends and amazing food.

Within just a few hours, the feeling of intense need to get out of India and away to Nepal as soon as possible began to diminish. We still didn’t know when we’d be leaving India, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow.

The following few days were spent in a really relaxed sort of manner, choosing to come and go as we pleased and take things a bit easier. Basically, it felt like we were attempting to recover here.

On our first night with our hosts we discovered their love for Vegemite, so on our first full day in Delhi we made it our mission to find a jar of the stuff for them. This search led us to Kahn Market, a high-end fancy area of Delhi where many diplomats, expats and tourists come to look through nice shops, eat and drink at fancy cafes, scour through book shops and purchase high quality foods from the many international supermarkets and grocery stores. Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate, quality imported cheeses and meats, jams, sauces, beer, and of course, our beloved Vegemite, were just some of the items lining the shelves. It was an interesting place to spend a few hours.

We discovered the INA market area a few stations away from Kahn Market, when we were searching for Dilli Haat – a food and craft market we’d wanted to visit. Missing Dilli Haat completely, we spent time wandering through INA instead, finding much of the same products as we did in Kahn Market – including a LOT of Vegemite – as well as other bits and pieces and other interesting things.

On our second evening with our hosts we had an Okonomiyaki Japanese feast – so much incredible Japanese food that we were all able to cook and eat and share together around their table. We loved being there and felt so welcomed and at home; I could feel our exhaustion starting to ease through new friendship, comfort and good, healthy food. Jacob and I had visited the supermarket earlier in the day with the hope to find ingredients to bake ANZAC buscits, but we had found none of the main ingredients and had instead found sugar, nutella, eggs and pomegranate – enough to make some kick-ass mini-pavalovas; Jacob hand-beating the egg whites and sugar for almost an hour. This dessert was a real winner, and over the next week or so with our hosts and anyone else who joined us for dinner, we all consumed too many mini pavs to count (or think about without feeling guilty and fat).

Soon after arriving in Delhi and meeting our hosts, our plans changed from leaving immediately to staying for a week: it was going to be my birthday on the 21st and why leave before then when we could stay and celebrate!? One of our host’s boyfriend was flying over from Japan and they were going away together for a few days, but she’d be back and all of us could celebrate together. It suddenly made no sense to leave early – we were having such a wonderful time, relaxing and recovering and eating and making new friends. I was also suffering from a horrible cold, and a few days were spent in a very low-key manner whilst I tried to recover; there was no way I was going to Japan in any less than 100% top condition.

Days were filled in easily, we came and went, took the train here and there when and if we chose to, we spent a lot of time cooking and even more time eating, talking late into the night sometimes, sharing music, movies, stories, culture, language and lots of home-made chai, chapatti and food. We were able to do little things we’d been missing, like washing our clothing in an actual washing machine, showering with hot water and cooking our own food. We cooked dinner one evening, and Jacob attempted to bake bread which, we learned the hard way, does not cook well in a convection oven. One evening was spent choking on the smoke coming from a loaf of bread that had cooked from the inside out, and caught fire. Lucky we’d all smelt it quickly, before any damage was caused! He’d prepared two balls of dough, and after the first mishap, a quick google search explained the best method to bake bread in that specific type of oven. The second loaf was more of a success.

We visited very few areas of Delhi during our few days there; often choosing respite over sight-seeing. I drank a lot of bubble cup, Jacob cooked a lot of chapatti and chai, our host cooked incredible foods and the three of us – sometimes four of us when the upstairs neighbour came down for a meal and a chat – had a lot of fun.

We visited Dilli Haat again one day where the momos were average and the crafts the same as everywhere else except much more expensive, and ventured into New Delhi station very briefly to check out the touristic area of Paraganj – which we very quickly left, but not before more foolish touters tried to mess with us and tell us we were apparently going the wrong way and should absolutely follow them as they are experts in this area (and no doubt at scamming money from naïve foreigners too). There’s no fooling these two whities any more!

Amazing how in just a few days of being away from the intensity of pollution, heavy traffic, touters, scammers, people harassing us and hoards of people, entering back into the sprawl of craziness left us overwhelmed, frustrated and impatient.

We went shopping nearby to where we were staying one day; I bought a pair of jeans and a jumper in preparation for Japan. Our clothing has become embedded with so much dirt to the point it can not be removed, and I refuse to walk around Japan in brown trekking pants that were once a light beige colour, and a streaky light-blue faded t-shirt that was once a dark navy colour. Besides, how could I pass up brand new Levi jeans for $25 AUD, when back home they’d cost me more than $100.

We arrived in Delhi on a Monday, the start of the working week, and by Friday evening, the end of the working week, Jacob and I had become quite at home with our host. Our second host was still away with her boyfriend, due back on Sunday. Saturday is my birthdayi, and Sunday is my non-birthday birthday; our host will be back with her boyfriend and we’re having a party. The details are being kept top secret, but I am so excited to be here with our little Japanese family in Delhi. It’s funny how things have a way of turning out. We needed this – we needed to end our time in India on a high with good people, healthy food and respite from the intensity and overload that India so often offers. I certainly feel that’s how things are happening here, and it was just so much luck that our paths crossed.

Our Top 10 Picks for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos

We packed a lot into six weeks and three countries; Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Barely touching the surface of Thailand, we spent just four days in bustling Bangkok before heading to Vientiane, the beautiful, weathered capital city of Laos. After 2 and a half or so weeks in Laos, we ended up in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we frolicked amongst temples from sun rise to sun set. Another 2 and a half or so weeks in Cambodia, and it was time to leave for Australia, while still feeling as if we had only barely scratched the surface of our Asian adventure…which is true, really. During those 6 weeks, however, we did more than we might’ve done all year back ‘home’…

We met so many people; travellers and locals, and shared memories we’ll hold with us forever. Our lives and perspectives were changed, and we learned so much about not only the countries and their histories, but of their people, cultures, religions, superstitions, beliefs, and ways of life. We learned about each other, and we learned about ourselves. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we cried…or laughed until we cried! We danced and sang, smiled and frowned. There were things that shocked us to our core, things that stopped us in our tracks, and things that bought us closer together; things that made us fall in love with the world, and things that made us feel ashamed. We made friends and made memories, and fell madly, deeply, completely in love with Asia. Asia grounded us, she pushed us to our limits frequently, she gave us perspective, and taught us lessons we can take with us for the rest of our lives. Asia also gave us the time of our lives…

So, after so much thought and deliberation, a million good memories, and hours of pouring through photographs of our trip, here are our Top 10 South East Asian Picks: Part One (There will be a part two… and probably three… maybe four.)

1. Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang, Laos! As hard as it is to pick a winner, Kuang Si Falls has to take the spot. A highlight; awesome tuk-tuk ride there, sweltering heat, amazing hike UP the side of the falls, over the falls, and DOWN the other side… then a cool dip in the crystal blue fall pools. One of the most amazing times in our lives. We would recommend it to anyone, however, the hike up over and down the falls is very steep and slippery and there is little to hang on to. It’s also not the easiest of hikes/climbs but SO worth it.

2. Bike Riding Tours! We did them in Bangkok – Thailand, Vientiane – Laos, Battambang – Cambodia, and Phnom Penh – Cambodia. We thoroughly recommend them to people of all ages and abilities! Grasshopper Adventures is a fantastic company, as well as Soksabike tours – both companies were so well run and real highlights, and they also look after the locals, which was important to us!
We also hired bikes in a few different places; it was always really cheap and a fantastic way to get around! Just be careful of the sometimes chaotic traffic!

3. Temple Hopping! From Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm, Bayon Temple and Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, we tuk-tuked and hopped around, over, in, through, and under historic temples and stone carvings and marvelled as we saw the sun rise, the sun set, and the colours change over these incredible temples. They took our breath away countless times.

4. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia! Not a place we ‘loved’ going to, but a place we needed to go to. It’s haunting, gut wrenching, and I was on the verge of tears, if not crying, most of the time while I was there. But I learned so much, and when I left these two places, I stepped out into the sunlight and saw smiling Cambodians. This is a country rising from sheer torment and torture, with a new attitude and way of life. They are inspiring people and gave us perspective, and the saddening visit to these two memorials was something we had to do, and are glad we did.

5. Luang Prabang, Laos! What an awesome place! It’s got everything you want and need. Amazing temples, pagodas and stupas, bike friendly, beautiful river scenery, a fantastic night market and masses of interesting street foods, a relaxed chilled-out atmosphere, a cool morning market, friendly people, interesting architecture, and lots to see and do! How we wish we could go back there…right now!

6. Cooking Schools! Yep – we donned the daggy looking aprons and got cooking in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia! You’ve got to do it; be brave and add that extra birds eye extra spicy chilli, explore those markets and try those very foreign looking herbs, fruits and vegetables! It’s amazing, and even if you don’t cook them back home, it’s so much fun, a great way to meet other people and it tastes so good!

7. Kampot, Cambodia! What a cool, dusty little town to spend some down time in. Find a cool guest house, wander the streets, hire a bike, take a trip on a tuk-tuk to Kep, eat some good food, wander along the river bank, buy some little hand made treasures from a local craftsperson, eat some feel good food for a good cause, and take a tour to see and eat the famous and amazing KAMPOT Pepper!!! So delicious! We’ve still got it in our pepper grinders!

8. ‘Phare Ponleu Selpak’ Circus, Battambang, Cambodia! – A school of performing and visual arts for anyone who wants to attend. These kids are off the streets and working and studying hard, and their talent is incredible! Look at the visual art on display, look at the school, and make sure you do not miss the circus! An absolute highlight of our trip, Battambang was an amazing place…and then we went to the circus. Can’t wait to go there again and see what these incredibly talented kids have to show off!

9. Plain of Jars, Phonsavan! We did a day tour here, to see the Plain of Jars as well as local villages, bombed fields (with live cluster bombs still sitting in the ground!!) and a waterfall trek. The whole day was amazing, run through the guest house we stayed at. Plain of Jars is a must see! Amazing to ponder what they were used for, why there were there, and how they got there…It was also just as amazing to see the landscape of a country once, and still littered with bomb craters and bombs. It’s shocking, confronting, and opened our eyes.

10. Zip Lining at Tad Sae Waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos! So much fun, but not for those afraid of heights! A trek UP and UP and UP will find you in the tree tops high above the group. You get clipped in, you pull back, you hold on at first, take your feet off the ground and scream with delight as you literally zip through the tree tops, over rain forest and waterfalls. Amazing, and SO much fun.

It was SO hard to limit it to only 10 (and in some cases, we’ve disguised a number of things under the one heading) because we just had the time of our lives, but hopefully this offers you some insight into the best experiences we had abroad in Asia…
Do you have any to add to the list?