The Pink City

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Arrive in Style with Serene Journeys

While Delhi is the capital and Agra the home of the Taj Mahal, Jaipur is by far and away the most stimulating vertex of the Golden Triangle.  The film ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ was filmed near Jaipur and most will recall the character Evelyn Greenslade (Judy Dench) remarking that “India is an assault on the senses.”  She meant it in a nice way.

Jaipur is known as the Pink City.  In 1876, the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII of the British Empire embarked on an extensive tour of India.  Since pink denotes the color of hospitality, Maharaja Ram Singh of Jaipur painted the entire city pink in color to welcome His Royal Highness.  The tradition has been followed through the years both inside and outside the walled historic center with every building being painted a terracotta pink with few exceptions.

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Albert Hall Museum

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A visitor at Albert Hall

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Staff lunching at Albert Hall

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Birla Temple

The Pink City is famous for its palaces and temples including the Hawa Mahal and its 953 windows used by women of the court to view the market screened behind the sandstone carving; the Amber Fort with its daily elephant entry procession; and the Water Palace that seems to sit atop the middle of Man Sagar Lake built by Maharaja Singh to provide a cool respite in the summer heat.  These are jut a few of the many, many examples of 17th and 18th century architecture found in abundance in Jaipur.

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A close-up of Hawa Mahal

Rajasthan is a desert culture featuring a colorful, harmonious lifestyle with natural elements that can occasionally be challenging.  In summer, while not as hot as Delhi or Agra, the temperature often climbs to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.   Elephants, camels, horses and donkeys still perform various transport tasks.  Rajasthani men wear sculpted mustaches and colorful, multifunctional turbans.  Popular sports include cricket, golf and polo.

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A Rajasthani man in his beautifully crafted turban

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Durga, owner of Dera Mandawa, working on my turban

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Durga and I, at Dera Mandawa

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Rajasthani men and their turban & moustache, truly fascinating

Jaipur is particularly noted for its arts and handicrafts especially marble carving, printed and woven fabrics and handwoven carpets.  The markets from inside the walls of the old city to the outskirts are always busy with locals and tourists finding treasures and striking bargains.

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Rickshaw ride anyone?

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The beautiful courtyard at Dera Mandawa

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Colorful sheets for charpai

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Pigeon feeding

The culinary style of the region is reflective of the bellicose lifestyle of the natives.  Rajasthani breads are made from corn, wheat, and other grains which are typically roasted on the tandoor or in frying pans.  Unavailability of many fresh vegetables, and other ingredients due to the arid climate have a profound effect on cooking style including the use of mild and other water substitutes in cooking.  Although predominantly a vegetarian region, the influence of the non-vegetarian Rajputs who favored lamb, chicken, pork and occasionally wild game is ever present.  Be ready for flavor as Rajasthani cuisine is inherently rich in spices appealing to every palate.

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Rajasthani Thali with Laal Maans, at Dera Mandawa

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Indian snacks street style, different kind of peanuts & green peas and chickpeas

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Suvarna Mahal restaurant at Taj Ramgarh Palace

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Suvarna Mahal at Taj Ramgarh Palace

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Papad platter at Suvarna Mahal

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Lamb tikka

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Pakoda

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3 course meal thali at Suvarna Mahal

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With Chef Sunil at Suvarna Mahal

So when visiting India’s Golden Triangle be sure to include Jaipur along the way.  Walk in the steps of the Maharaja’s, enjoy the colorful desert lifestyle, sample the local cuisine, and shop til you drop.

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Travel like Royals with Serene Journeys

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Make sure you get some shirts made with hand block print cotton fabrics

Puppet shows & cultural Rajasthani folk music are highlights of the evening at almost all hotelsPartcipate, and be part of the culture & you will truly enjoy your holiday.

 

Robindro Saikhom
robin@serenejourneys.co
www.serenejourneys.co

Robin is the founder of Serene Journeys, a gay travel company in India and a freelance travel photographer.  Follow him on Instagram @ serenejourneys or Facebook @ Serene Journeys.

 

The Hidden Sanctuary of Northern Kerala

The Refuge of Peace

To most travellers, a trip to Kerala conjures an image of an idyllic cruise on the backwaters of Alappuzha. Indeed, there are now over 500 houseboats on the backwaters of Alappuzha alone. But there is much more to South India’s most serenely beautiful State than cruising in the increasingly busy backwaters.

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Theyyam dance make-up

In search for serenity, I headed to Northern Kerala and arrived at Neeleshwar Hermitage, a cloistered tropical paradise set in a secluded palm grove beside the Arabian Sea. I was overwhelmed by this boutique sanctuary: it took my breath away and could truly be described as a haven of perfection. Eighteen beautiful cottages, each named after a traditional yogic virtue, come with a garden or pool view and private pool. The beach is just 20 steps away from the retreat where you can enjoy breakfast to the sound of the waves watching the fishermen returning from the sea.

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Isn’t it rare to see a crowdless beach?

After a wonderful 3-night stay at this refuge of peace and tranquillity, we drove to a small jetty a ten minute drive south from Neeleshwar Hermitage situated on the banks of the Tejaswini river. I boarded The Lotus, a two bedroom rice barge offering total comfort in tasteful style and elegance.

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The Lotus Houseboat

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The cruise covers about 25kms of the Valiyaparamba backwater, a large inland lake several miles due east of the Hermitage. As you sail further south, the only sound is the lapping of water or the occasional jumping of huge red snappers. The cruise also takes you on a short walk through the sleepy village to the monkey island. A taxi ride to Shri Mutthappan temple, a highly atmospheric shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva in his form as a local tribal hunter offers the opportunity to witness the evening ritual involving the priest acting as a trance-medium for Shiva and serving as an oracle for worshippers.

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Where the river & sea meets

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A perfect sunset from the deck

To appreciate the joys of this part of ‘God’s Own Country’ aim to spend at least 4 days and enjoy the remote peacefulness where days can easily and slowly turn into weeks.

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Sunset and wine goes quite well together

Nearest Airport: Calicut or Mangalore

Need help? Write to us at robin@serenejourneys.co or steve@serenejourneys.co (For UK & Ireland)
Visit our website at Serene Journeys

Robindro Saikhom (Robin)
Founder, Serene Journeys

Robin is the owner of Serene Journeys, a bespoke travel specialist for LGBT & communities based in New Delhi and a freelance travel photographer.  Follow him on Instagram @serenejourneys or Facebook @Serene Journeys.

 

Welcome to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – A 4 Day Sojourn

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Welcome to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – A 4 Day Sojourn

Day 1

After an early start for my slightly delayed flight from Delhi and following several triple espressos to wake me up, I’m finally on my way to Udaipur. I’m met at the airport by my driver who will take me to Ravia Khempur for my stay at the real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and I’m filled with excitement and a little trepidation as I think about what may lie ahead of me and who might be my fellow guests at the original ‘hotel for the elderly and beautiful’.

Ravla Khempur is located in the heart of Mewar and is home to the real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  The nearest airport is Udaipur and the hotel is 21km from Udaipur airport.  The title ‘Ravla’ in Rajasthan refers to the “home of a village chieftain”.

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The car journey to the hotel takes us through narrow streets crowded with cyclists, cows, buffalo and people crammed into open trucks. The journey was made more charming as we drove through the monsoon rains creating a sort of wonderland inhabited by the happy faces of local people walking, cycling or enjoying the shelter of their homes that bordered the narrow streets and tiny alleyways. It seemed particularly appropriate that my driver was playing an old Bollywood song on the radio, a fitting soundtrack for this special journey.

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When we arrived at our destination, the now globally famous sign awaited us proclaiming “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful” Half-expecting Sonny to appear at any moment, I was instead greeted by the manager, Nitin who welcomed me to the hotel. A very convivial host, Nitin showed me to my room and informed me that, in the film, it had been inhabited by Sunaina and we laughed and joked together as I informed him that this room would suit me perfectly. Nitin offered to show me around the property and I was very interested to hear the stories attached to each of the rooms and which character from the movie was associated with which room, visiting the domains of Evelyn, Mrs Donnelly, Douglas, Norman and ending our tour in Sonny’s office.

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The hotel has 12 ensuite rooms exuding historical ambience and is graced with breathtaking surroundings. The lofty terraces, open courtyards, sprawling gardens, domes, arches and canopied balconies transport you back in time.

DSC_0120 DSC_0127This evening I met two English guests, Richard and John who are staying at the hotel. We had dinner together and enjoyed beautifully prepared, simple and authentic Indian food consisting of dal (lentils), chapatti (thin Indian bread), kaddu (pumpkin) and chicken curry followed by halwa (A sweet Indian dish consisting of  semolina boiled with milk, almonds, sugar, butter, and cardamom.). Having bid goodnight to my new friends I headed off to my room wondering whether Nitin might follow Sonny’s example of taking a roll call in the morning! A thoroughly enjoyable start to my stay in the hotel where nothing is exactly as it seems.

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Day 2

As the new day starts, I hear the peacocks and the priest performing his ritual at the temple as the early morning sunlight streams through the coloured glass windows. For a moment I lie in bed wondering whether there may be a roll-call but, almost disappointed and maybe slightly relieved, I arose to greet the day without my name being called. Richard and John joined me for a breakfast of bananas, papaya, masala chai, toast and pancakes: an adequate and simple start to our day. Nitin came to let us know that the government school next door was having a small function for Indian Independence Day and wondered if we would like to visit there. We enthusiastically followed his suggestion and walked to the school, taking pictures of the colourful houses along the way. All the village people had turned out for the function at the school, they were happy to welcome us to the celebration. The kids were smiling and wanted us to take pictures with them. The celebration was joyous and colourful with lots of traditional dance and shows performed by the students.

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On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the temple where the village elders were performing their regular rituals.  I was fascinated by the many different colours of turban, and asked Nitin to take me inside so I could take some photos of the elders.  The elders were very welcoming and were happy to pose for the click click click of my camera. They seemed happy with the results and I thanked them before heading back to the hotel.

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After a traditional lunch of dal, stir fried okra, rice and chapatti,  I took a wander round the hotel which is housed in a building dating back to 1628 AD.  I headed down to the stable where Babru, the full time stable caretaker introduced me to Gambler, the famous black stallion with 4 white socks and a white bless (panchkalyan) on his forehead. Later in the afternoon,  I explored more of the village when the local people were heading back from their daily work, some bringing back their cows and buffaloes. It was a joy to capture their contended smiles as they made their way home from the day’s labours.

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We have a new guest tonight, Bernice from France who just came by to see the property and decided to spend a night.  We were 4 of us for dinner, enjoying hot chapatis, dal tadka, tinda vegetable, rice and tawa chicken. Another lovely evening as we continue to chat about the movie and the fictional stories that have made this hotel an international icon.

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Day 3

A musical start to the day as I was awakened with the peacock singing his morning song and the priest playing ritual music with bells and drum. Today I didn’t wait for the name calls! When I arrived at breakfast, Bernice was already preparing to head off and continue her travels.  After breakfast the 3 remaining guests joined Nitin on a trip to Badgaon lake which is 10 km from the hotel. On arrival, I was very excited to see the beautiful lake appear as though from nowhere.  Nitin arranged a canoe for us and we were over to the other side of the lake. We spent a very serene afternoon bird-watching and relaxing as the little waves lapped against the shore. Although John and Richard were supposed to fly out this afternoon, they have decided to stay on for a night more, testament to the magic of this place and the attraction it holds for guests.  We spent another beautiful evening watching the sunset from the hotel and sharing stories of our lives.

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Day 4

As the morning sun came through the window and kissed my face, I opened my eyes smiling and thinking how happy I am to have decided to visit this beautiful, rustic place described by Guy Chamber as a “monastic palace”.  After breakfast I have a slightly heavy heart as I wave goodbye to everyone. The staff have been extremely friendly and helpful and I am already looking forward to returning to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in October and checking out new additions to the property which will include a swimming pool overlooking the stable, modernisation of some of the rooms and a stable themed restaurant and kitchen.

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Our tour “Bewitched at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is all set for departure for single, couples or a small group of friends.  If you are interested, please email us for detailed itinerary.

Robindro Saikhom & Steve O’Donnell
www.serenejourneys.co
Email: robin@serenejourneys.co
           steve@serenejourneys.co (enquiries from UK and Ireland)

Varanasi (9)

Robin is the founder of Serene Journeys, a gay travel company in India and a freelance travel photographer.  Follow him on Instagram @ serenejourneys or Facebook @ Serene Journeys.
Steve is Director (UK & Ireland) with Serene Journeys and a freelance travel writer and photographer.

Mysore Dasara 2015

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Mysuru (or Mysore) Dasara Festival. Be a Part of Royal Festivities in the City of Palaces.

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Fantabulous city festivities, live artist’s performances, caparisoned elephants on parade, dazzling fireworks.

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Symbolizing the victory of good in the form of Lord Rama over the evil represented by the demon King Ravana, Dasara is of great religious and social significance among the predominant Hindu community of India. Dasara is celebrated with great fervour across the country. Hence, visiting India at the time of Dasara is essentially becoming interwoven in India’s great colourful, spiritual and cultural persona. The ultimate Indian cultural treat with complexity of a fine south Indian culinary experience .

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Visit Mysuru, the city of palaces, during Dasara when the mystical and magical meet those mere mortals fortunate enough to enjoy the journey.

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By Robindro Saikhom with Steve O’Donnell
www.serenejourneys.co
Email: robin@serenejourneys.co
steve@serenejourneys.co (UK only)
The author, Robin, is the owner of Serene Journeys, a gay travel agent in India and a freelance travel photographer.  Follow him on Instagram @ serenejourneys or Facebook @ Serene Journeys.
Steve is a freelance travel writer and photographer and UK Consultant with Serene Journeys.

Serene Journeys Second Anniversary

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Looking back, I can still faintly see me chasing my dreams, wondering and exploring what I exactly want to become.  Coming from bioinformatics background, then switching to Animation, working at call centres, retail stores, marketing etc.  Until one day I accidentally came upon the travel line and it was like something waiting to happen.  I absolutely fell for what I now do on a daily basis, the whole concept of meeting travellers, travelling yourself, exploring the whole new world.

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It has been absolutely wonderful and feels like a calling.  A career pursuit which I really love and enjoy doing.

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As they say, “love the life you live, live the life you love” and that’s exactly what  I am doing.  That is, being a self-anointed Travelpreneur.

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Travel led me to practising my photography skills on the highways and byways  as I travel on and Voila another new passion is born…not quite full circle to animation but nonetheless a enjoyment of all things visual! It has been the best combination I could ever imagine.

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I am now an aspiring self-taught photographer bringing the travel experience through my eyes to whomever graces me with their notice whether it be on my Serene Journeys gallery, Facebook, or just sending a few pics to friends and family.

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I would like to thank everyone who stood by me all these years  in making Serene Journeys one of the upcoming gay luxury travel guides  to India.  Come and celebrate with us.

Robindro Saikhom
Serene Journeys 
Email: robin@serenejourneys.co

Robindro is the owner of Serene Journeys, a gay travel agent to India and a freelance travel photographer. Follow him on Instagram @ serenejourneys or Facebook @ Serene Journeys
Steve O’Donnell is a freelance travel writer and photographer and UK Consultant with Serene Journeys.