Friday, May 29, 2015

Thailand: A Quick Guide for First-Time Visitors

As soon as you enter the gargantuan arena of Bangkok Airport you’ll realize why Thailand is known as the ‘land of smiles’. On arrival you’ll notice that locals are among the friendliest and welcoming imaginable, and this might be down to living in a country of unparalleled beauty. If you’re a first-time visitor to Thailand then here are a few tips that will help to ensure a stress-free vacation.

 The offering.

Thailand has a whole load to offer visitors, including the beauty of those famous beaches on the islands of Phuket, Ko Tao and Ko Phi Phi. Thailand’s 127 national parks — amongst them, 22 marine parks — are also a major draw and a place where getting back to nature will take you trekking through lush rainforests on the back of an elephant. Of course this country’s coastal resorts have long been famous for their nightlife and party atmosphere, which is why many backpackers and gap-year students travel to the country on flights to Thailand every year.

Thailand Travel

Entering the country.

The Thai people may be friendly but you won’t be able to sweet-talk your way into leaving Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport if you don’t have a return ticket or a passport that’s valid for six months. A visa isn’t required if you’re staying for only 30 days, but overstay your welcome and you’ll usually be charged a 500 baht fee for each additional day. There are certain exemptions though and if you arrive into the country by land you’ll be granted a stay of only 15 days. It’s always best to check visa requirements before departure as there are exemptions, such as Croatian nationals who must apply for a visa in advance.

Getting around Thailand.

Thailand has an extremely good (and very cheap) rail network, which links most of the major towns; the network stretches for 4,600 kilometres and a rail pass is generally valid for 20 days. Car hire is another option available in most cities or towns and the road quality is good although it can reduce to small lanes in rural areas. There’s over 1,600 kilometers of inland waterways in this country. If you can prefer this option you can take inexpensive water-taxis or the more traditional narrow motorboats. If you’re heading from Bangkok Airport to destinations such as Phuket, Ko Samui and Chiang Mai there are a range of domestic flights available.

Like a local.

The Thai people may in general be aware of the misunderstandings of local customs by first-time travellers, but there are few points to keep in mind. If you’re visiting religious shrines, mosques or temples then stay appropriately dressed; no flips flops, shorts or short sleeves, otherwise you might be denied entry. The southern Muslim areas aren’t keen on topless sunbathing or nudism so stick with bathing costumes and shorts. If a disagreement does break out with a local then keep calm; Thai people do not respect those who cannot keep an even temper, even during an argument.

Be aware of the law.

Ensure you have your passport with you at all times. This is a Thai law and travellers can be arrested if they’re unable to produce their passport when required. Don’t criticize the Thai Royal Family under any circumstances — your views can land you a prison sentence of between three and fifteen years. Be aware that smoking is now illegal in areas with air-conditioning and the police also regularly fine people who discard cigarettes; official ashtrays are provided. The legal drinking age is 20 — many people ignore this rule but you can find yourself on the receiving end of jail time if you’re caught.

You’ll find that English is spoken widely through Thailand but learning a few Thai phrases is always courteous and will be seen as a sign of respect. As when traveling to any foreign destination, stick to the customs and laws, and you should be able to just relax and enjoy your holiday.


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About the Author: Jed Mason is an experienced backpacker and has spent the last 10 years exploring different continents. Backpacking around Thailand has been one of his favorite travel experiences so far. Image by permanently scatterbrained, used under Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

5 Incredibly Delicious 'Old and Famous' Street Chaat Shops in Chandni Chowk, Delhi.

What is the first impression that comes to your mind when I say ‘Delhi’?


Capital of India? Chaotic? Independence Day parade?
… Pretty good, go on!

Now guess - what’s mine? It’s FOOD GREAT FOOD! If tomorrow, India decided to come out naming its foodie capital – I am sure Delhi would be one city very hard to beat. Delhi is high on food and to raise a toast, all you need to do is jump on its streets on a hungry stomach and let your nose do the talking!


Narrow crowded streets of Chandni Chawk, Old Delhi

The streets of Delhi, are jam packed with tiny hole-in-the-wall shops, pushcarts and eating stands that attract and satiate a swarm of crowds every passing day. What’s amazing is that many of these street shops are so old and their taste so legendary that they are afforded a quintessential heritage status of their own, thanks to a big foodie clientele of their own. During a few of my recent visits to Delhi, I decided to break in a few of these long-standing street chaat shops in the Chandni Chowk area and test the pride that they take in their ‘old and famous’ repute.

So, how did the shops fare? Did they pass the test or did they fail? Read on, you’ll soon find out!


1. OLD FAMOUS JALEBIWALA, SINCE 1903

The name says it all! One of the best places in Delhi to start of your breakfast foodie expedition is this sweet shop – Old Famous Jalebiwala.

Old famous Jalebiwala, Chandni Chawk street food, Delhi

Best, I say, because it’s located just metres ahead of one of my favorite places of reverence in the capital city – The Sheesh Ganj Gurudwara. The shop is small in size but big in reputation that has spanned across generations. Ask the Delhiwalas about their Jalebis which is quite an artifact in itself – most of them swear by it!

A tray full of plump jalebis at Old famous Jalebiwala - Chandni Chawk street food, Delhi

Despite the crowds, the place is pretty clean and the Jalebis cooked keeping cleanliness and hygiene in place.

What to eat?

Jalebis are hot piping round mish mesh melt in the mouth crunchy whirls of golden brown deep fried batter dipped in sweet sugary syrup called chasni.

Hot piping Jalebis being fried at Old famous Jalebiwala - Chandni Chawk street food, Delhi

Jalebis taking a nice dip in pure ghee.

A kg costs you Rs. 300 but if you don’t have anyone else to share your bounty with – go for a single piece only (which will cost about Rs. 40) – fat, juicy and plump, one jalebi is just about enough to get your hunger pangs satiated. It’s really soft too so that elderly people with a sweet tooth do not have to miss out on the irresistible hot delicacy.

A piece of hot and juicy sweet jalebi at Old famous Jalebiwala - Chandni Chawk street food, Delhi

Soft and fat Jalebis happily swimming in the bobbing oil of the cauldron.

They have samosas on the platter too but I gave them a miss simply because I wanted to try things at other places too.

Address: Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, Delhi.

How to get there?

Sheeshganj Gurudwara on the Chandni Chowk Road is the landmark you have to keep in mind in order to get to the Old Famous Jalebiwala. Walk east and turn into the Dariba Kalan road. The shop is in the corner of the road. 

Contact number: (011) 23256973.

Timings: 9 AM - 10 PM.


2. HALDIRAMS, SINCE 1983.

If the only concern that stops you from getting berserk on the array of street chaats, sweets and savories tantalizing your taste buds is the thought of unclean hands and unhygienic roadside conditions, then Haldirams is the shop tailor-made for you!

Haldiram, famous Chandni Chawk eatery, Delhi

Haldirams is a high-end sweet and savories snack shop, also one of the oldest in the Chandni Chowk area, packing in almost every taste that the streets of Delhi offer. North Indian, South Indian, Chinese, street food, desserts, ice creams, namkeens, quick-bites – you name it and they have it!

A sneak peak in the eatery of Haldiram, famous Chandni Chawk, Delhi

We went there during breakfast time and found the eatery packed with a big crowd - again a great indication for the quality of the place. There are share-tables laid down inside the shop where you can self-serve yourself and people-watch other people munching their heart away. Alternatively, you can grab yourself a personal-seater table on the first floor which is fully air conditioned with service provided.

When compared to its siblings on the streets, the food at Haldirams is a little bit on the expensive side – but for the quality taste and service it serves along with the wide assortment of food – the extra money spent is well worth it!

What to eat?

Whatever makes your mouth water! All the food at Haldirams is neatly displayed behind the glass shelves for you to see, sample and choose. My personal favorite is the samosas, spicy potato dumplings stuffed in deep fried coat of flour eaten with tangy tamarind and hot coriander chutneys.

Yummy samosas at Haldiram, famous Chandni Chawk eatery, Delhi

Priced at a reasonable Rs. 12 for a piece, the aftertaste of the hot and fresh samosas left me craving for more. I decided to top it up with a sweet and helped myself with a Rasmalai, which was extremely fresh and delicious as well.

Address:

1454/2, Near Sheeshganj Gurudwara, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi.

How to get there?

Once you get to the Sheesh Ganj Gurudwara, you can easily find Haldirams located on the opposite side of the Chandni Chowk road.

Timings:

9 AM to 10 PM.


3. MANGO KULFI AT KUREMAL MAHAVIR PRASAD KULFIWALA, SINCE 1908.

After all the chaats, it was now time for the dessert we had an eye on, even before the trip commenced - Mango Kulfi at Kuremal Mahavir Prasad Kulfiwala which was first introduced to me by one of the fabulous guides by the passionate food blogger Mark of Migrationology. Going by his description and pictures, the delicacy sounded too innovative and novel to be given a miss!

The Kuremal family has an ancestral lineage in the making of seasonally flavored fresh fruit kulfi ice creams that boasts of a huge loyal clientele today. On offer is sweetness overload - an incredibly wide array of flavors, around 50 in number, more famed among these being the Mango Kulfi - an exotic avatar of street food packed in a natural delight!

Narrow lane leading to Mango kulfi ice cream at Sitaram Bazaar, famous Chandni Chawk eatery, Delhi

Don’t go expecting a high-class ambiance though; the place is a small storehouse like shop, located in a purani galli amidst a clutter of old mansions but then, doesn't that sound like a charming ambiance of its own? 

What to eat?

Try anything that you may like but DO try the Mango Kulfi!

If the name conjures up a mix of mango and kulfi, then you’re on the right track. Except that there’s a twist. Fresh, ripe and good quality alphonso mangoes are picked up from the market, the top head cut off and the seed along with the adjoining flesh removed. This hollow is then filled with the rich and creamy Indian milk ice cream kulfi, covered with an earthen urn and iced up for a good time.

Mango Kulfi icecream - famous Chandni Chawk street food, Delhi

The earthen urn is broken off later, when customers like you and me turn up for a serving. The breaking of the urn reveals the mango covering which is peeled off to expose the sunshine colored, wonderfully flavored sweet Mango Kulfi.

The special Kulfis are priced at Rs. 60 per order; you can also go for the Kulfi sticks which are relatively cheaper.

Address: Kucha Pati Ram, Bazar Sita Ram, Delhi, 110006.

How to get there?

Tucked in amongst the old havelis of Kucha Pati Ram, off Sitaram Bazaar, the place is difficult to find. We kept asking shopkeepers about the location and most of the time, either the shopkeepers gave us a perplexed look or they directed us to a wrong lane (one even said that the shop no longer exists!). We were nearly on the verge of giving the exercise up when fortunately; a Good Samaritan guided us towards the right lane. All I can say is that keep trying and enjoy the journey – it’s a narrow lane and the shop IS there somewhere - once you get to your destination, you won’t be disappointed.

Timings: Not fixed.



4. NATRAJ DAHI BHALLE, 70 + YEARS RUNNING.

Another chaat item to go for, when in Delhi, especially when you are beating the heat of the Indian summers, is this ultimate revitalizing cooler - Dahi Bhalle. And there are fewer (or no!) better places in Delhi that serves this dish better than Natraj Dahi Bhalle.

Natraj Dahi Bhalla joint, famous Chandni Chawk street food, Delhi

This old stall is a small hole in the wall shop and its popularity
is evident by the fact that it is almost always swarmed with the locals.

To combat this crowd, the shopkeepers generally keep a large spread of assorted dahi bhalla tin foil plates ready to be served at their counter but this trick doesn’t seem to help much. The plates are swiped off sooner and there are always hands stretched out to place their orders.

The tip here is to considerately make your way in. Once you have secured your share of the creamy pleasure, find a decent place for yourself where you can eat in peace and enjoy seeing others eating as well! There is no seating space, even standing space is restricted so you have to make your way somewhere on the pavements or the roadsides.

What to eat?

Dahi Bhalla is really the thing to go for when you are here although you do get aloo tikkis too. But what I took was a plate of Dahi Bhalle, which had 2 pieces in it, costing Rs. 40 and really loved the taste.

Dahi Bhalla at Natraj Dahi Bhalla, famous Chandni Chawk eatery, Delhi

Dahi Bhallas are fried lentil dunklings smothered in rich, fresh creamy yoghurt dressed with the flavorful blend of spicy coriander chutney, tangy tamarind chutney topped with very edible pomegranate seeds and a host of other Indian masalas to lend them their exclusive spicy, tangy and sweet taste.

Address: 1396, Chandni Chowk Road, Sis Ganj Guru Dwara, Maliwara Tiraha Bazar, Katra Dhulia, New Delhi.

How to get there?

Take the narrow alleyway leading to the Chandni Chowk metro station, you will find this eatery at the end of the alleyway.

Timings: 11 AM - 9 PM.

Contact number: 09811208811.


5. HOLE-IN-THE-WALL CHAAT SHOPS, since times unknown.

When it comes to the roadside version of food, Delhi is quite a legacy. Samosas, Kachoris, Chole Kulche’s, Pani Puris – there’s an amazing array of exotic flavors scattered all around the town in tiny little shops and modest-looking pushcarts, many of which have been passed down through generations.

A famous hole in the wall shop in Chandni Chawk street, Delhi

All you need to do is get down to walking the exploring the city’s chaotic streets and bazaars by foot and let the gastronomic smells guide you. Out there, amid the chaos are vendors serving the most delicious chats that shall not only satiate your hunger cravings but serve you an experience for a lifetime! Alternatively - if you don't find the time and energy to make your way through the chaos, try ordering your favorite food through one of the famous online food delivery websites and get a slice of Delhi happiness delivered right at your doorstep. 

What to eat and where?

The Chandni Chowk area and Paharganj area are good places to explore for roadside eateries. Here, you can get everything that North Indian street food is known for – Pani Puri, Aloo tikki, Puri Bhaji, Samosas, Kachoris, Papdi Chat and Chole Kulchas.

Roadside street Kachoris being fried in Chandni Chawk, Delhi

Aloo Tikki at Natraj Dahi Bhalla, famous Chandni Chawk street food, Delhi

The owners behind these pushcarts and small hole in the wall shops are generally friendly people, quite happy to get chatting about their food. They would tell you everything of how their ancestors made it to Delhi with dreams of making it big and boast of secret recipes handed down from their fathers and grandfathers. Whatever the reality might be – if their food tastes great, you really want to believe in their stories as well!

A crowded hole in the wall shop in Chandni Chawk street, Delhi

A little warning on the hygiene though - most of these may not always follow a regimented order of cooking. What you can still do, on your part as foodies, is follow the universal tip: If there is a crowd, around a cart – it must be good.


These was my round-up of the street food fare from Chandi Chowk area of Delhi.
Of course, there's a lot more to be found and eaten, I know.
Please add to this list in the comment section - and, I will be there next time!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Happy Travels in an App-y World?

Technology baffles me, so many times. The evolution and advancement in digitization over the past few years has set in like swift water rapid, too fast for most of us to grasp, gain ground or come to terms with.

Just a couple of days back, I was checking out the price of a few curtains on a mobile website of a big e-shopping giant and suddenly, out of the blue, came a pop-up to download the company’s app if I really wanted to enjoy the experience.

This is just one instance, I can recount many similar such instances where users are now being constantly pressed to download and use the app instead. Not just that, companies are now slowly announcing their departure from the mobile and desktop website dome in favor for an app-only stratagem. Case in point is Myntra which has already taken the big step in the electronic world. News is rife that Flipkart is all set to follow suit.

Future of travel in an app only world sketch
The world is fast going App-y! Are you ready?

I told you, technology baffles me - with so much happening in the world of digitization, I was just wondering, if there will soon come a day when we shall open our eyes in an app-only world? If yes, how would the future of travel shape out in such a world?

Only time can answer such questions. What we can do is imagine and envisage. And I did just that – gaze into the prospect of travel in an app-only world – without further ado, let me tell you a few of the things that I saw in my futuristic crystal ball:

1. Virtual travel in a new dimension: 3D Appchair – Travel!

People generally love to travel. But it’s true, not everyone can do what they love, willingly or unwillingly. Sometimes responsibilities might pose a priority, at other times they might not have saved enough and at some other times they just might not have the will to get out of your cubicle. 

Whatever the reason hampering their dream of travelling, lovers of travel still make an effort to get closer to their love by browsing travel pictures, reading articles and watching videos, that is, in effect, by indulging in some armchair travelling. Although armchair travel does a good job of evoking a sense of travel today, somewhere I believe it still lacks that punch to getting anywhere close to the real deal.

That is precisely where I envision the app-only world to bring about a revolution – virtual travel but with a real vibrant 3D feel – Appchair travel!


Virtual travel illustration

Armchair to Appchair - Get the difference?

All the traveler will have to do is tap-speak-tap and lo! Off, he shall be taken, on a digital carpet, to the destination of his dreams – for free!

Picture this: I say – Rishikesh - and almost immediately, I can hear the gurgling sounds of the mystical River Ganga, I see twinkling lamps of the Ganga aarti and what’s more I can even feel the whispering breeze coming down from the Himalayas – Now, how cool would that be?

2. App-irresistible urge to travel!

No matter how amazing a virtual travel experience is or will ever be, the real experience can never be replaced. However, what great virtual experiences can do is pave the vision for an awesome real experience which the traveler might not have known otherwise.


Travel illustration sketch

Inspiration – we call it and if we don't love it!

An amazing 3D Appchair virtual experience will pique the interest of the travelers enough so that they set their eyes and heart on the real thing! As the wise men say, where there is a will, there is a way. The more the inspiration, the more people will get out of their boxes, pack their bags, and actually travel!

3. Interconnected App-planning to plan your perfect trip!

Once you have made up your mind on a destination, next thing is to get down to planning. I have always maintained that a bit of flexibility is good but at the same time a certain amount of planning never hurts; in fact it’s essential to help you realize your dream of a perfect vacation!

Having said that - with visas to get sorted out, budgets to be fixed, flight tickets and hotels to be booked, itineraries to be prepared – it’s very well understandable how daunting this entire activity can sometimes be such that it leaves you with little or no time to revel in the joy of the anticipation of travelling to a new place. Sure, apps like TripIt, TripAdvisor and others are helping many travelers plan their journeys beautifully even in this age but since they all work in an independent zone, to collate all the variety of information from so many sources is not easy – far from it actually!

Wanderlust planning sketch illustration



For a quick, easy, stress free planning experience – let us sit back and gaze into an app-only age!

I see this as a time when individual apps will be open-ended meaning they shall be readily willing to communicate with each other. Each of their memory banks will be laced with their set of personalized data based on user’s choices, preferences, semantic searches and reviews on social media sites which will be incorporated automatically. What this amalgamation of custom-made data on a centralized platform will ultimately do is draw a tailor-made plan complete with links, maps, animated guides and illustrations on hotels, destination, ticketing etc. all suited to the user’s modality.

The user can then always add on the plan, fine tune it, integrate ideas or delete some to finally stick on something that will ensure a well-chalked out hassle free vacation. 

4. Automated App-check-in at airports!

Who has not been through the ordeal of waiting for their turn in long queues to collect the boarding pass or to check in during boarding? Simply put, these are some of the (most crucial but) laborious time consuming activities which could be used for so many other things like… eating!

And why not? Isn't it like one of those mechanical rituals like one of those sequences in a movie where, instead of getting bored we would rather fast-forward the reel to enjoy the next scene but alas! This is life. Here, you have no choice but to go through the queues and waste your precious time.

Wanderlust illustration


This is where I think the wave of an app-only world can jump in to enhance security screening clearance and speed up delays caused by unnecessarily lengthy queues at airports. Airlines will be able to impeccably integrate a fully automated and highly confidential app system within their skeleton that shall verify, authenticate and protect confidential information of the travelers so as to alleviate delays in security checks. Incheon airport in Seoul is already setting an example in this regard by setting up a self service kiosk in place that aids 3 minute check-ins with eight major airlines. Come to think of it, this is just the beginning. In an app-only world, the traveler will be digitally guided throughout the flight check-in process in a fraction of a minute optimizing self reliance thereby cutting out any unnecessary delays.

5. Goodbye, Travel Bloggers – Welcome Travel Appers!

Remember, it’s an app only world… But, hey! There’s nothing to worry. I will be there and so will be you. Perhaps, no longer known as bloggers but widely known as Appers?


Travel Appers illustration



Oh, and yes, we shall be connected.

Just that our connections will now thrive in an app-only environment: secure, creative and diverse marking new ways of communication, with the world and with our own selves.

Hmmm… Sounds pretty good to me. What about you?

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