Saturday, April 8, 2017

An evening well-spent in Abhinavagupta Research Library in Varanasi

I have frequently seen myself a scholar withdrawn, having enjoyed the most valuable part of my life in those crusty, otherwise inanimate words written by writers of all ages, putting their hearts and souls and made such wonderful objects called books.  I was spending my days in Varanasi abandoned my time in the streets of this ancient city, sitting on ghats all day long, sometimes quite restlessly. I kept lots of books with me during my journey, though I looked at them only now and then. I didn’t wish to practice resignation in Varanasi but to observe how people were living in this oldest city with zest.

More and more I was feeling that why we would box everything into advantages and disadvantages. I was engaged in thinking why we were so involved in starving ourselves before we were hungry? It came to me that I was not an exception in this living, probably because I was also a part of this tasteless urban life. So, I desperately wanted to get rid of this futile thinking, at least not in my travel.

Read More about Varanasi

Two days spend in some good and bad experiences. I had already spent a few days in Varanasi, and one fine morning I got a call from my friend Yann who lived in the city. He had a very beautiful house in the heart of the city, with a terrace, nice garden and absolute silence in all of his rooms. We spent some good time with French tea and handmade cookies.  He told me about Abhinava Gupta’s library and Bettina Baumer. A well-known indologist and one of the scholars of Kashmir Saivism, she had lived in India for more than four decades. 

A brief tryst with Abhinavagupta Library (संविदालय ) and Kashmir Shaivism

Abhinavagupta Research Library
In the afternoon I went to the library. I met Bettina 'Sharada' Bäumer, an Austrian born scholar who dedicates her life in abstruse philosophy and in the field of inter-religious dialogues. I found her very gentle and humble. She showed me the library though not much talked about the philosophy. She gave me three books to study and showed me the study room. Surprisingly, there was no conventional study table in the room. There were four bookshelves and one tanpura (a classical string musical instrument). I felt very relaxed in the room and studied those books for straight two hours. When I came out of the study, she already left the library.

Kashmir or Kashmiri Saivism 

It is a system of philosophy known as the Trika System. The Sanskrit work Trika means ‘threefold’. In Kashmir Saivism, also scholars wrote it Kashimiri Saivism, trika is used to refer to threefold signs of humankind and their world. These three signs are Shiva, Shakti and the bound individuals (nara), and the three energies of Shiva. These three energies are Para Shakti – the supreme energy, parapara Shakti (medium energy), and apara Shakti (inferior energy).

Trika philosophy explains that the realm of apara Shakti, the lowest energy is found in states of wakefulness (jagrat), and dreaming (swapna). The domain of medium energy, is established in the state of sound sleep (susupti). The province of para Shakti, the supreme energy is found in Turiya state. Turiya state transcends the three common states of consciousness – waking consciousness, dreaming and dreamless sleep.

Kashmir Shaivism is a nondualist Tantric practice that is one of the oldest forms of spiritual practice in India. There are still many yogis and practitioners follow the teachings including some of the proponents in 20th century. One such name is Swami Lakshman Joo, who was a Kashmiri Brahmin, revived the tradition and made a great contribution to this legitimate field of spiritual inquiry.

Information on Abhinavagupta Research Library

The research library has been established by the Trika Interreligious Trust at Varanasi, as a place for study and research on Indian spiritual and religious traditions with special emphasize on Saivagama/Tantra and Kashmir Saivism. The library has a vast collection of books including Veda, Agama/Tantra, Kashmir Saivism, Indian philosophy, Traditions of Banaras, Indian Art and Aesthetics/Musicology, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The research library is in collaboration with scholars and institutions like Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Central University for Higher Tibetan Studies (Sarnath), Institute for Religious Studies, University of Vienna (Austria), centre for Intercultural Theology, University of Salzburg (Austria).

Opening Timing: Daily from 2 to 6 p.m. (except Sunday).

Activities: Occasional seminars are organized on topics related to the special focus of the library, as well as text study (Sanskrit), individually or in a group, with a scholar or pandit. Also, music programmes are occasionally organized. 

There is also a space for meditation in the library.

Address: B-2/114, Bhaidaini (near Ma Anandamayi Hospital), second floor, Varanasi – 221001
Director: Dr. Bettina Baumer ‘Sharada’

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why does door and window photography fascinate me?

Old buildings always fascinate me, particularly doors and windows. While walking on a sidewalk, or walking in the streets, and even in midst of busiest traffic in roads, my eyes always look for doors and windows. Doors and windows aren't just there to be opened and closed. These doors and windows speak history, a certain sense of nostalgia and earn admiration. From a historical standpoint, we can understand culture, social structure and antiquity of society. My personal favorite is always old doors and windows, but from a photography point of view, contemporary architecture also invites much passion among photographers. 

There are many angles of photography. The subject can be on the outside or inside. The windows in particular create a disjunction between the viewer and the world outside. In window photography, subject has a role to play in the imagination of the photographer. There may be many interpretative approaches to it. Through your photograph, you may show the subject being inside the window is weak, doesn’t want to face the outside world. It is all a symbolic interpretation that a photographer wants to capture through his or her lenses. 

Some suggestions on doors and windows photography

There is no best time as such because in this age of advanced manipulation of image by Lightroom and Photoshop, you can do almost whatever you want to do with the photographs. However, for genuine photographers best time is early morning and late afternoon because most of the porches, awnings, doorways are out of the light path and no shadows are present.

Tripods are good to capture the details of images since you are in slow shutter speed. Generally natural light is enough in these hours but if you are too sensitive about the light, you can use a flash to fill in. 

When a door or window captures your attention, first thing is to remember about your first impression. What’s the first thing that catches your attention? How colors will affect on the overall scene? How about the wall surrounding it, or doors itself? If you put these questions before capturing your image, you will add more detail to it.

Another important aspect is to focus on your primary focal point and eliminate all distractions. Keep everything that you want to capture in focus and sharp. This way you can maximize the depth of the field.

( All photographs here were captured by my cell phone camera)

Picture Gallery

Kolkata, 2016 

Kolkata, 2015

Varanasi, 2017

New Delhi, 2014

West Bengal, 2016

Kolkata, 2013

Bangkok, 2015

Varanasi, 2016

Kolkata, 2014

Kolkata, 2015

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Following the religious cult of Dasha-Mahavidya Chhinnamasta at Rajrappa (Jharkhand)

chhinnamasta temple rajrappa jharkhand india

Chhinnamasta, a fierce goddess, a form of Sati, consort of Lord Shiva, symbolizes the unique nature of women. She is a life-giver. She was merciful to such an extent to behead her head and fed her blood to satisfy the hunger of her two attendees. She symbolizes sexual self-control and embodiment of sexual energy. As far as Tantric tradition in India, Chhinnamasta is an embodiment of Kundalini Energy (spiritual energy). 

Rajrappa, a small place in Jharkhand, surrounded by forest and beautiful landscape, is the only place in India where Devi Chhinnamasta is worshipped. The place is located on a hillock at the confluence two rivers – Damodar and Bhairavi (locally known as Bhera). There is also a small Rajrappa falls, a sort of tourists’ attraction.  The history of this temple is cryptic because it is not documented anywhere. Curiously, the temple’s name is mentioned in ancient Hindu texts such as Vedas, and Puranas. The temple architecture, surroundings and almost everything in that area transpires a subtle energy. Because of its tantric cult and ancient tradition, the temple is also considered parallel to Kamakhya Temple in Assam. 

Historically, once the Mughal once attacked the temple but Santals, a major tribe of that region resisted it with guts and gumption, and saved the respect of their deity. Till date, the temple is a very important pilgrimage of the Santals and other tribal who come to perform the last rites of their parents in the Damodar. 

Road journey to Rajarappa

NH 20, Hazaribagh to Ranchi Road
Riding through the meandering road, verdant forest on both sides, it was a bit surreal experience. I would say, it was probably the best motorcycle riding experience in my whole trip. When I first entered in Jharkhand, I was a bit surprised to see such smooth roads. Jharkhand Highways are fantastic; it was truly a great riding experience. 

Read More on Motorcycle Riding Tips

On the way from Etawah to Barhi, I suddenly decided to take a turn and came to Hazaribagh. Rajrappa Chhinnamasta Temple provoked my mind when I first read about in a Bengali weekly magazine. I went o Hazaribagh purely based on my instinct, and later on I thanked my instinct that I would have missed a great experience if I didn’t came to this place. That's not unusual, a peculiar part of my desultory roving.

I like small towns; Hazaribagh perfectly fits my imagination. Although a small town, it boasts of some good hospitals, excellent roads, convent schools, and easy life. The road from Hazaribagh to Rajarappa is approximately 75 Km. National Highway 20 was smooth and in excellent condition. At certain stretches called Ghaati were surrounded by deep forests on both sides. Sometimes the road had steep curves, almost semi-circular curve that was a bit dangerous in high speed, but traffic was light, so riding was altogether safe.

Rajrappa Temple Architecture & Dasha-Mahavidya

Chhinnamasta Temple Complex
The temple architecture is similar to temple Kamakhya. The red, blue and yellow colored temple is similar to temples of other tantric importance. The deity is headless statue of Chhinnamasta stands upon the bodies of Kamdeo and Rati in a lotus bed. It symbolises the Goddess’s power to control sexual energy. The main temple complex is small, but adjacent other temples have come up around it. The other temple complex is larger than the original or the primary one. It represents other nine Mahavidya forms of goddess Sati.

The story goes on like this Sati’s father king Daksha was performing a big ceremony, he didn’t invite his daughter and son-in-law because he didn’t approve the marriage of his daughter with Shiva. Shiva though a Lord, was very insolent and carefree, which was not approved by the society. Sati felt his father did a great insult not inviting them to the ceremony, so she asked her husband to accompany her to Kankhal (Haridwar) where her father was performing the ceremony. 

Shiva Linga at Temple Complex
Shiva tried hard to convince Sati that it was not a good idea to go to place uninvited, but she was adamant. After some futile attempt to earn consent, Sati had a feeling that Shiva would have forgotten the fact she was a goddess. To convince her husband, she then showed her ten different forms of Parashakti. Her ten Shakti forms is collectively known as Dasha-Mahavidya that includes Kali, Tara, Shoroshi, Bhubaneshwari, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagala, Matangi, Kamala and Chhinnamasta.

There are many legends on Chinnamasta origin and the creation of all Mahavidyas. According to Hindu esoteric tradition of Tantar, goddess Chinnamasta is often cited as the fifth or sixth Mahavidya. There were hymns identifying the goddess with fierce aspect of Shakti (Devi). Most of the forms of Mahavidya do not have independent existence outside the group. According to 9th century’s Guhyatiguhya Tantric tradition, Mahavidya likens it Lord Vishnu’s ten avatars (Dashavataras). It is said the man-lion avatar Narasimha was originated from Chhinnamasta. In the late 16th century, Mundamala Tantric tradition equates avatar Parshurama with Chinnamasta.

Temple Complex & Surrounding Area

Like any other temple complex in India, there are fruit, sweet and flower shops at the surrounding area. The temple is flooded with pilgrim during special occasions like full moon day, Saturday and Tuesday. Every year on Makar Sankranti (vernal equinox, the temple witnesses a large fair where pilgrims from various parts of the country come to pay their reverence. Animal sacrifice is a significant part of the Tantric tradition, so every Tuesday and Saturday, and on the occasion of Kali puja it is practiced in the temple.

The surrounding area is quite eerie after sunset. There are a few small ashrams opposite to the temple where some sadhus live. The rock formations on both sides of the river are photogenic, and also attract tourists. On a quiet day, you can sit and see tribals are fishing with the nets in the Damodar river. There are a few country boats available for tourists for river cruising.

The area is surrounded by cluster of hills and forests of Simul, Babla, Akashmani and Mohua trees. There are also wild animals, which sometimes can be caught on the riverbank. 

How to reach Rajarappa

You can either go from Hazaribagh or Ranchi. From Ranchi, bus starts at about 9:30 am from Khadgarh. Ranchi to Rajarappa is around 70 km, and the road is excellent. You can also hire a private taxi to enjoy the road journey. A small stretch that goes in the middle of village is bumpy, otherwise everything is just fine.  You have to go to Ramgarh (on the Ranchi-Hazaribagh Road via NH 20_ and then take the right turn to Bokaro.

From Hazaribagh to Rajrappa is approximately 75 km, will take 2 hours if you ride gently, riding while enjoying the scenery. You can find couple of tourist buses from Hazaribagh New Bus Stand. Buses going to Bokaro are also going through that road, though  you need to travel at least 10 km on your own. 

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Art Of Traveling On Two Wheels

I am a traveller, not a rider. I met riders who went to a place, spent the night and again travelled for 400 km on their motorcycles. I am not like that. I find pleasure in staying at one place for a long time. I ride because it gives me mobility, and also undeniably there is a joy in riding.

Traveling on a motorcycle is different in a way from cars. In a car you are in an enclosed space, it always feels like a compartment, you are in a frame and passively observe things. Motorcycle is different however. If your purpose is traveling, and not riding, traveling on a motorcycle is indeed a good thing. On a two wheeler, the frame is gone. If you’re a sensitive person, you can feel you are in the scene. In my riding often I felt a strange sensation of pleasure, especially when I was riding on highways surrounded by rural landscapes.

I had planned for a long ride on my newly purchased motorcycle, just 2900 km clocked in odometer and 3 months old. I had started my journey in the middle of December, winters suits me well and the tarmac roads are cool and less harsh on tyres. From Kolkata to Delhi, roughly it’s 1600 km. My plan was deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. When I came back home (Kolkata) after 37 days of traveling/riding, my odometer measured 8900 km, so I rode exactly 5000 km in 37 days.

I maintained a journal where I put things in a diary fashion. Those are my kind of field notes. I changed engine oil thrice, and when I returned home, I changed it once again. I had an accident once, I did one full servicing once in Delhi, and one partial after the accident.

I don’t like Highways though. It is because of the simple fact that it robs the joy of seeing things. On highways you can’t help but to run fast. State Highways are better, especially I found Rajasthan State Highways extremely good. Due to my inexperience in twisty hilly roads, I found it difficult initially to manoeuvre the machine but after some time those twist and turns turned out to be extremely enjoyable. I liked paved rural roads; slow speed was very enjoyable on those roads, and gave me an amazing sense of joy.

To me, it was somehow a feeling of liberation when I was moving slowly on a road, fresh air and lots of greenery on both sides of the road. Roads free of trucks were enjoyable, though in the daylight trucks were far better than speeding cars. Roads where trees, green fields, meadows, lawns came almost to the shoulder, where people looked at me with curious eyes, I found it very exciting. I seldom used Google Map because I found it more enjoyable to stop to ask directions or information, and the answer tended to be longer than expected.

Long distance motorcycle riding is tough, and often rough, especially in Indian Highways. There are many things you need to understand or at least study first before you go for the first time. Most important things come with experience; still I am giving here some essential facts, tips and suggestions for beginner motorcycle riders who wish to travel in Indian Highways.

Motorcycle Technical Tips

First thing is to understand your motorcycle. It is important that you go with the familiar machine, not a new one or borrowed one.

Needless to say, before riding a long tour you need to go for a full servicing. I didn’t go for it but I checked all my parts and changed my engine oil. I double checked my brakes and understood very basic motorcycle mechanism.

You should at least know the very basic of motorcycle repairing stuff. For example, how to change a flat tyre, or change your own engine oil because you can get engine oils in petrol pumps but most of them don’t change it. Also, carry basic tool box. That being said, do not overdo it. You don’t need to be an expert, and it is not possible also. You can accidently damage your machine.

No matter how strong your motorcycle is, always take rest after two hours. It is better if you run 100 km/hr constantly for an hour, take rest for 15 minutes.

For long tours, always rely on heavy engine motorcycles.

Personal and Safety Tips

DO NOT ride in the dark. No matter how good rider you are, vow not to ride in the dark. If you start in the early morning, say 6 a.m and till 6 p.m, you have enough time and distance you can cover. So, there is no need to ride in the dark. Particularly in Indian Highways or in India you find ample accommodation options, so just take a shelter.

Always tie your luggage tight. Carry extra pair of bungee cords with you. Do not carry heavy load on your back, perhaps a small backpack with not more than 2kg of load. Carry ample amount of water even it is important.

Whenever I stopped for a night, I immediately opened my laptop and started working. You don’t need to do that. The first shower after 10 hours of riding feels like heaven, so first take a proper shower, eat good food but light and hydrate yourself. It is better not to drink alcoholic beverage if you are riding back to back days.

I always wear a money belt where I put all my cards, IDs and cash. Some cash I put it in my wallet. Before turn on my ignition key, I checked my wallet, phone and money belt, and this became a habit. Carry enough cash with you. I know it’s dangerous but most of the places in India don’t accept Paytm or online transactions, even in some petrol pumps they denied me card payments.

Wear ear plugs. Trust me it is great. Or at least you can purchase a good balaclava, especially in winters when wind is cold and you ride fast, things are getting exhausting fast if you do not protect your ears.

Wear full helmet, although for riders with specs full helmets are very uncomfortable. You can wear a half helmet but always careful to buy helmet that fully fits your head. Wear a decent helmet, a good riding jacket, knee guard and don’t forget to wear boots.

It’s very important to make yourself visible while riding on highways. Make your bike on the path of the road that is visible to other road users. For example, if you are following a truck or van, don’t go right behind it. Get it the side of it, looking at the rear mirror, if you can see the driver’s face, he can definitely see you.

Don’t follow other riders, and try to overtake or compete. Highway riding  is very dangerous. A little mistake and you fall, and if you fall, you will hurt.

Always take photographs on your road and send it your friends in WhatsApp. Always inform your friends where you are, where you reach even if you don’t like to do it. If you stay at a motel, send the photo of the motel with name and address.

Finally, always expect the unexpected.

Tips on Riding on Indian Highways

Indian Highways have this big advantage. You will always find dhabas (local roadside restaurants), petrol pumps after 5-10 km and people around. So, even if you unfortunately experience some problems with your bike or an accident, you will find people to help you out. That comes with riding in dark point. In the night, you won’t find around, and if anything bad happens, nobody will there to help you out.

Indian Highways there is always a risk for riders who ride fast. There is always a possibility when you see people cross the road, not just people but cows, dogs, sheep, chickens etc., so be vigilant and careful about your speed.

Even there are always petrol pumps after every 10 km or so, don’t let the fuel meter to reach the red line. Always fill up the tank before it reaches the reserve.

Create space around you. Use your indicator when you change lanes. Keeping space is often forgotten, especially when you are passing a truck or a big van. Maintain a safe distance between your motorcycle and other vehicle until the point that you can accelerate to pass.

Tips for Solo Motorcycle Touring

File a daily plan with friends and relatives is the most important thing when you ride solo. Don’t discount the concerns of others.

As I said before start early and finish early before dark. It is advisable to settle somewhere before sunset because changing light makes it difficult for other drivers to see you.

Carry a small diary where you note down all your information for example, important numbers, addresses, emergency contacts, where you have stayed, which places you ate on the road, distance covered etc.

I don’t use GPS but I am an oddball. So, carry GPS and use it often to track the road.

If you are traveling alone, it is always advisable to eat smart, hydrate yourself well and sleep early. Remember there are no one near and dear one to look after if you fall sick. So, keep your health well, at least the best you can.

Finally, in case of an accident when your motorcycle is totally damaged or partially damaged, but you are alive with perhaps a few scratches or a hairline fractures, don’t fret about your broken machine. Don’t curse yourself or mourn about your motorcycle. Thanks to God that you are alive, and learn what the lesson you have got. It is very important!

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Last legacy of Headhunters in Nagaland

nagaland village mon traditional house

One mid-monsoon afternoon, after my Deutsche examination, I went out for much anticipated journey to north-eastern part of India. My journey was principally focused to Nagaland, a land of tribes, weird foods, legends, and conception, sometimes fabled to a point that outside so called civilized people take a backseat when going to the region.

My journey to Mon, a district town bordering with Burma was a hectic one. Nothing went smooth as soon as I crossed the Tizit town. Nagaland police drilled me for almost 40 minutes, checking all my papers, even my laptop and field notes. As I moved to the district, I was again checked, and this time Army (Assam Riffles) sniffed me hard. Earlier I was in Kohima, though a cool place to live in for a while, I saw security guards watched heavily laced with advanced guns from posts.

A typical Nagaland village house
It took more than 3 hours to reach Mon from Sonari, a small town in Assam, bordering with Nagaland. Sonary is a beautiful place with lush green sweeping tea gardens and small houses. I loved all of those scenes, those thatched tin roof, greenery and people around. The winding road, the villages, small patches of tea garden, forests everything put a very different, sometimes a little uncanny feeling in my mind. 

Nagaland, as it’s been portrayed to the outside world, something a unique identity whether their lifestyle, food and culture, I saw a certain glimpses through my journey. There are more than 35 existing tribes in the state; some are also present majorly in Manipur and Burma. There are principally three tribes who are in the mainstream: Sumi or Sema (mostly dominated in Dimapur region), snake eating Angami tribes are mostly confined to Kohima villages and famous Konyak, the legendary headhunter tribe. There are other prominent tribes like Ao, Chang, Lotha, Mao, Zeme and other spread over Manipur and Burma.

An old Konyak woman selling vegetables & Herbs
I was not much aware about headhunters but during my stay in Meghalaya, I was told by a guy about Konyak tribe and last remaining lineage of this tribe living in Mon. situated on the very border between India and the tribal parts of Burma, Longwa, a small village, earlier dominated by headhunters, still reflects the old charm. This small village is no more an obscure one; tourists throng to this village and everything is so expensive. There are a few places to stay and even a homestay where you can experience the beauty of Naga people in their own way. Travelers from distant land come to visit the village as headhunting legends and stories are indeed fascinating. There are a few men, very old ones whole still wear animal horns through their ears, brass skulls and tattoos on their chest, and some rare facial tattoos. 

Morungs are still found in Mon. These are old customary schools where children are taught survival skills and hunting practices. I never saw even a bird in the whole forests of Mon. An old temple priest, who lived there for 22 years, jokingly said that Nagas ate everything, not even spared worms. Longwa, the main attraction of travelers is perched on a ridge on the Indian-Burma border. It’s around 40 km from Mon town, and shared taxis are there to take you to the village.

Before Mon, I was in Kohima, but Mon was something that put a deep impression in mind. It’s culturally fascinating place where you witness old thatched traditional houses, people with old way of living, opium smoking tribes, houses decorated with animal skulls and famed tattoos. 

History of Headhunters

Till 1930, most of the remote regions in Nagaland were totally in oblivion, even not mentioned in maps. Headhunters were the main tribes or as a local said to me, all Nagas came through headhunter lineage. They remained remotely in villages and natural barricades, forests and fast rivers protected them. They fought with their enemies who were neighboring villages. Head hunting was sort of a culture than fight. Naga women ridiculed men who didn’t have face tattoos or even chest tattoos. Chest tattoos signify a person trained in headhunting. 

konyak headhunter
An old Konyak (trained in Headhunting)
Their main occupation was farming, principally rice farming. Sometimes they invaded villages, taking lands, taking heads of people, not even spared women and children. One village was connected with another through bamboo bridges, quite fragile and easily destroyed in hostile situations.

To protect their lands from enemies, Nagas covered forests with men traps. These were bamboo spiked that pierced the feet, sometimes they attacked with poison arrows, and rare occasion they plowed large pit with pointed spikes. Till 1936, Nagaland large regions were not mapped in British map, and then British came to this place with full army and arms.

This was a significant time, a momentary change for Nagas when they first saw cars, ammunition and white people. However, they remained what they were, and headhunting still continued as a traditional heritage of Nagas, particularly Konyak tribe. 

opium smoking in Mon
Opium smoking 
Headhunting was a cultural phenomenon rather a pure conflicting subject. Hunters were trained for the skill to chop of the heads and brought to the villages and ceremonial dance performed by the hunter. Skulls were being used to decorate their houses, not just animals but men, women, and children. These skulls were then fed with rice beer. This ritual was the central focal point of village life so that spirits revisit the village, giving the strength and vitality.

The last headhunting was officially stopped in 1970 as the central government totally abandoned this ancient culture as barbaric and criminal. Unofficially headhunting was continued till 80s but it was completely obliterated when Indian Army posted they camps in different regions of Nagaland. 

Important Facts about Mon Town

Lau Pani (local beer)
Mon town has a special charm. It is a small place with a few shops and food joints. There are some vegetarian food joints where you can get snacks etc. The villages are adjacent to the town, so you can easily get into those villages and see the local life. However, it is advised to take a local guy who know things better. It is also for safety reasons.

Accommodation & Food

Hotels are expensive. There are three hotels, and all of them are almost Rs. 1000 or more. The facility is basic and food is ordinary. But you don’t have any choice but to stay in Mon. if you can reach Mon in the afternoon, you can hire a taxi and go straight into Longwa and stay there.

I had a special experience, worth mentioning here. I didn’t anticipate the bills of hotels, so I was heavily disappointed but suddenly a teenage boy from bus who was a Bengali asked me what happened. I told him it was pretty difficult to stay for me here because of the cost. We went together to a hotel named Sunrise Hotel, next the State Bank of India. The owner was a Bengali too, but he said rooms were filled. So, we went to another one, which was again Rs. 1200. I was deeply thwarted but Rajat (the teenage boy) asked me whether I was comfortable to stay in a temple. I readily agreed, and we went to the temple located inside the premise of Assam Riffles. 

The temple priest was too reluctant to take me in. I finally said whether he took me in or I would go to the forest and stayed there for a night. Then I comforted him by saying I would go to the police station and stamped all my documents. I went to the police station, stamped my documents and then came back to the temple. He unenthusiastically asked for Rs. 200 for the stay that includes my dinner. Well, I think I was purely lucky in this case.

General Warning

The town virtually standstills after 5 pm, and it is not advisable to roam around the streets or villages. There are good people but there are bad people as well, particularly the opium stuff destroys the youth and men, so many of them looking for easy money to smoke some pure opium. This is not just a scare mongering but a real fact, so don’t just show your bravery in Mon after 5 pm.

Accommodation in Longwa

You can go to Longwa but there is nothing out there. The main attraction is Angh (king) house that is half in India and half in Burma. There are no headhunters left; at least I haven’t found any. However, you can see the village with skulls and other decorative stuff. Also, you can find some nice souvenirs. You can stay in Longwa, but the stay is expensive. 

If you plan to visit Longwa, it is better to note down the timing of bus and shared taxis. There is one bus going to the place in the morning and come back in the evening. There are two shared taxis, one in the morning and another one in the afternoon (2pm). You can obviously hire own taxis readily available in Mon but these are expensive. They charge you anything between Rs. 3000 to Rs. 4000 for to and fro from Mon to Longwa.

Insurgency in Mon

There are some problems in this part of Nagaland. Although things are now peaceful, insurgency is still there. Apparently there is a pressure for villagers to join the insurgents, else there will be reprisals against that village. The insurgents are dominated by ENPO (Eastern Nagaland Peoples Organisation). They have raised the demand of separate Eastern Nagaland or Frontier Nagaland. The eastern region, basically Konyak region is considered the most backward place in Nagaland so they demand their own independence.

Young Konyak woman eating breakfast (beef & rice)
It is safe and quite calm but it is advisable to take a local while roaming around those villages. There are army posted everywhere in this region but things are still lukewarm, and people are not happy with lack of business, jobs and taxes levied on them by the government.

For Intrepid Travelers

Houses decorated with animal skulls
A female Christian named Yahoi who has a developed a strange cult in this region. The women has been making many prophecies, encouraging followers to practice naked worship in Church. The village that you may interest is Wangti, but it’s quite far from Mon, so if you are really interested in visiting this place, you can find it out.

Important Contacts

You can contact Longsha, a Konyak Naga who knows fairly good amount of the culture and traditions. He is a local guy there and professional guide to foreign tourists. He speaks good English and has a car. He is a busy man, so contact him in advance. 

+91 9436433504 / 8974390751 or

You can contact another person, a local who I befriended during my journey and he took me to the nearby village. I had a great experience with some people there. If you contact him, tell him my name (Shubhajit), he might recognize me.

Mr. Chahland, 9862841861.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

First impression of Cambodia, and tips in and around Siem Reap

angor wat temple

"Tuk - Tuk! Tuk - Tuk!" "Massage Sir!" "Sir food, good food!" Tonal voices of Khmer, asking you for taking their services in a desperate manner first created an annoying feeling. Constant bugging you for services that you didn’t need or at least very apparent that you were not at all interested, created an impression that was not joyful after all. However, when I lived there for a few days and observed the life of people, I understood how poor they were! It’s a compulsion to earn their living by this constant bugging, there’s no alternative for them.

Life in Seam Reap was far different from my anticipation. Every tourist seemed to be like a dollar making machine. They saw one and jump on it. In spite of everything, people were gentle, and accept their lives joyfully. I was very surprised to see how in Cambodian border, in front of government officials, thugs tried to cheat tourists. Surprisingly, the building where some unknown Khmer guides you to take your visa on arrival, was the fake one. When some people would finally arrive at the real building, you had to pay another $30 for their visas. I was warned by my friend about this scam, so I had already secured e-visa beforehand, albeit paid extra $7 for processing charge.

Beer at Pub Street

Siem Reap is quintessential backpackers’ destination. After spending much time in Khao San Road in Thailand, I was not desiring the same thing in Cambodia, but my first impression of Siem Reap was astounding. There were hotels, restaurants with catchy taglines, hostels, bars and everything reflected a feeling of alienation, especially when I had an entirely different mindset while traveling to Cambodia. There were ubiquitous pubs, restaurants, lots of hotels, a few hostels, and of course those annoying massage parlors.

There was an alley called ‘Pub Street’, pretty much literal by its name. While walking along the street, I was frequently approached by street peddlers for different stuff, starting from postcards, souvenirs, tourist guidebooks and even drugs. And there were girls who approached me and "guaranteed" “happy ending”. I was very surprised to see a 14-15 year old boy working as a waiter in a restaurant with fantastic English and etiquette.

What you can do in Siem Reap

Angor Temples

Ta Phrom Angor Temples
Ta Phrom
The main, and probably for most of tourists, only attraction in Siem Reap is Angor Temples. Even if you aren’t really a heritage person, the temples will mesmerize you with their dumbfounding architecture and fantastic ambiance. The temples and surroundings are peaceful, ideal for any shutter happy individual and if you really want to see more, you can take a guided tour that will ensure you don’t miss the hidden charm. I particularly amazed by the trees in and around the temples.

ta phrom in angor wat temples

I and my two companions, 50 something Canadian couple, hired a Tuk Tuk and went for the temple tour. We started in the late morning as we had planned to see the sunset but unfortunately cloudy weather and sudden rain disappointed us. You can also hire a bicycle but it will take lots of effort, especially in the summers to ride the whole temple complex. Another way is to hire a bicycle ($1) and also hire a tuk tuk and hop in with your bike and start your temple tour journey from the ticket counter.

The full tuk tuk temple tour will charge you around $15 but if you want it to leave it at the ticket counter, it will be around $5. There are total five main temples, but many small relics as well. Don’t miss Angor Wat (the biggest one), Bayon and Ta Prohm. If you find time and wish to spend $20 more, you can take another day for Angkor Thom and other temples.

Hire a tuk tuk tour

tuk tuk in siem reap cambodia
Ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk
If you are not very comfortable in riding bikes, hire tuk-tuk for the whole day and see some popular places like Floating Village, Tonle Sap Lake, Banteay Srey and other places. I was quite shocked to see the mechanics of tuk-tuk; it is a 100 CC scooter, which is attached with a bogey, acting like a local taxi in the city. There is no public transport except tuk tuk so there is no option left for you. The good thing is there are plenty of them, so you can bargain hard to get a good price for hire. I had learnt one thing that is whatever they quoted I said exactly half of it, and then they came down to a good rate.

Indulge in fish massage

fish massage siem reap cambodia

If you don’t want to splurge in spa, there is a good alternative for your feet. There are dozens of shops lined around Pub Street, offering fish massage. If you are wondering what is that, let me tell you it’s not a great thing but it claims that tiny fishes actually nibble your dead skin from your toes and give relaxation. Well, I haven’t tried it, you can obviously.

Try Khmer cuisines

I liked Cambodian foods than Thailand but many people don’t agree with me. You can try a traditional cooking class where your chef guides you through ingredients, cooking style and serving. The most famous is Amok (fish and chicken), also you try green mango salad and spring rolls. Remember if you are not comfortable in eating raw vegetables, order fried spring rolls.

Take a bike tour to nearby villages

I did it and I enjoyed it. I hired a bike for $1 and went straight to Siem Reap War Memorial. From there I traveled to nearby villages and lost somewhere. Then I discovered a hidden resort in the middle of village with superb ambiance and free wifi. Cambodian villages are same like Indian North Eastern villages, same landscape, same vegetation, and same smell of earth. That was my best experience in Siem Reap apart from 4 hours dip in swimming pool.

Tro u -  Cambodian string instrument
Tro u -  Cambodian string instrument
Buy souvenirs

I know buying souvenirs is not exactly in the list of a traveler, but the tempting things in old market with such cheap prices compelled me to buy something for my home. You can go to Old Market (Phsar Chas) where you can get lots of things such as paintings, shawls, local made vessels, Buddha statues, bamboo craft, and numerous other things. I had bought one slingshot, one Cambodian violin, chopsticks, a coconut handbag and some silk scarfs for my neighbors.

Tips to travel in and around Siem Reap

First and foremost tips if you are coming through Poipet, don’t ever listen to any locals. Follow backpackers and team up with other travelers and find the actual visa center. It is just a 10 minute walk passing a few desolate casinos.

In the bus station, do not change your dollar. In Siem Reap there is no need to exchange money because everybody accepts dollars.

bar pubs in pub street siem reap
Bar @ Pub Street
Wait for some time in the bus station, or if you are alone, team up with 3-4 travelers and hire a taxi. It will take $10- $12 (in 2015) for one passenger. A bus will charge you less but then it will take lots of hours to reach the city.

The taxi will take leave you at a place where you will find a smiling tuk-tuk driver saying he will take you free to your hostel/hotel. Don’t fall prey to it, because it is an exchange for next day Angor Temple tour, which he will charge anything around $20-$25. If you don’t have much luggage, you can walk for 15 minutes and reach the Pub Street Area (Sok San road) where you will find hordes of hotels, restaurants, cheap hostels everything.

Pub Street restaurants are expensive; you can get the same food in a cheaper price in Sok San Restaurants.

Bayon Temple
Always bargain hard while buying souvenirs.

Don’t fall prey for prostitutes. In the night, there are lots of locals talk about ‘Boom Boom’,, ‘Happy Ending’, weed etc.

Beer is cheaper than coke or juice. Should I need to give a tip on that?!?!

Siem Reap is relatively safe, still book hostel that has personal locker facility.

There is no public transportation, so you either hire tuk-tuk or rent a bike and explore. If the weather condition is fine, you can also take a walking tour.

You really don't need additional SIM for Internet. Every restaurant, hotel, hostels has free WiFi.

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