Mumbai in 5 star hotels. Let’s call it: “India light”.

I flew to Mumbai to meet my girlfriend Michelle, who had business in India for a few weeks. This pulled me out of the world of cheap little hotels and into the international standard I was also used to when I travelled for work. What I was not expecting was that the official airport taxi driver did not know where the hotel was. He asked two other drivers and they didn’t know either. He drove off and stopped at a little office near the exit of the airport and emerged apparently confident. We did get there. This often happens to me, especially when I stay in very small hotels. I usually look on Google map and find the nearest important business, hospital or park as a reference. But I never thought to do that for a 5 star hotel.

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I mean this is the hotel! 37 storeys tall, on top of probably the poshest mall in all of India! Michelle’s theory was that people who stay there would never set foot in an Indian public taxi. She certainly didn’t. The hotel sent a car and driver. In the high-end malls we visited, very few Indians took taxis. They would not walk to the parking, but rather to the exit, cell phone in hand, and their driver would pick them up. Due to the salaries for low-skill work in India, basically if you can afford a nice car, you can afford a driver.

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The mall was connected to two smaller malls (not as fancy, but OK), and the space between them had been fenced off. This meant that once you went through security screening to get into one, you could go to the other without further screening. In other places in India, we experienced the annoyance of having to go through 3 airport-like security screenings in 10 minutes. But I am not complaining, as the threat from Islamic terrorism is always very high in India.

We did go for a walk to buy some beer. Of course the hotel had some, but the markup was about 1,000%. In fact, the prices were the same as in any 5 star business hotel in the world, despite being in a country with such a low cost of living. It was similar to the time I stayed with a friend who was on business in Bucharest. Since alcohol is taxed in India, the markup was not even as much as for the food. Basically, for the price of a bowl of soup at the St-Regis, I could eat 10 meals in India. Maybe 20.

198---03This is what liquor stores typically look like. Rules differ by state, but the ones I saw tended to be Government-run. They are mostly as creepy as this one. You can’t go inside and you order through iron bars. Uninviting is the mother of all understatements and you really feel like you are doing something wrong by going there. “I’ll have a pound of heroine please”. They are also generally scammy and will quote inflated prices to foreigners.

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If something goes wrong in your life and you end up in India, you should know that it is the only country in the world that has a system of “Maximum Retail Price”. This is a beer I was sold at a much larger such government store, where you could walk in. The clerk didn’t take it from the main fridge but reached under the counter and gave me this one. The small piece of label missing is where the price is written. The next day I went back and the same thing happened. I asked for one with the whole label and then I did what I never do. I made a gigantic scene. It was rush hour at the liquor store and here I was, slamming my fist on the counter, screaming vulgar insults at the clerk at the top of my lungs. He was quite petrified – not sure by what feeling – trying to pretend I wasn’t there, even though other shoppers were in stunned silence themselves. I have absolutely no doubt that I embarrassed myself more than anything else. But: a) I couldn’t care less. b) It was fun. c) He gave me my 20 Rupees back from the night before.

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Then I realized the mall had this store! Probably the nicest liquor store in India. I think it was called Living Liquids, but the LED sign changed to a Bud advertisement when I took the picture.

I loved the Palladium Mall. The great thing about it was that it was located in a business district, not a touristy area. So if you spent the money to live there, you could avoid a lot of the unpleasantness of India, without isolating yourself from Indians. You were just around wealthier Indians. I mean look at that place: there are young woman walking around alone! You would never think you are in India. I would lounge in Starbucks reading the news while Indian women chatted and teenagers studied for exams. And at the table next to me, an elderly businessman was giving feedback to a young manager about the plan she had come up with for some business meeting. I pretended to keep reading the news while I listened in and discovered the differences and similarities of how to pitch something to a potential business partner in India vs North America. My most pleasant moments in the country. Continue reading

For 96 hours, I thought Kolkata was the filthiest city in the world. Then I went to Varanasi.

If you missed my first India post, you should read it. Kolkata was disgusting, but Varanasi was much worse. Garbage all over the place, all the streets smell of urine, mangy, flee-infested stray dogs everywhere, but now with the added benefit of lots of cows shitting in the streets. And people collect the shit to dry it and use it as fuel. So it may only be visible on your shoes, but rest assured it is also in your lungs. Oh, and lots and lots of human corpses. You read correctly.

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These are holy cows, so you might think they live in a nice holy pasture. But they don’t. They live in a holy garbage dump, where they eat holy garbage.

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River tour, very early in the morning, by small rowboat.

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Before dawn you might spot some women. But these will be older women. You won’t see 16 year old girls prancing around in the Republic of Rapistan (if you think I am being a jerk, read my previous post about the situation of women in Rapistan. I mean India, same link as before). BTW, India made Canadian news again this week. 15-year-old Indian girl dies after being raped, set on fire. 

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Later, you see lots of people, but mostly men. It is problematic for many women to go in the river, because the river is not in their homes, where their owners keep them all day long.

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If you take your dirtiest clothes and wash them in the Ganges, they are guaranteed to come out dirtier.

To Hindus, especially devout Hindus, bathing in the river is some sort of spiritual cleansing. But while the river may indeed be full of spirit cleanser, it is also full of raw sewage, rotting human corpses and industrial effluent. Unfortunately, for many, the religious significance of the river results in complete disbelief that anything could be wrong with it. Continue reading

I went to India. And I absolutely hated it.

If you have been following my travel stories for a while, you know that I generally like to present positive things about the countries I visit. Sometimes I can be a complete jerk, like when I went to Burundi, but usually I’m not. If you just stumbled on this page randomly, you will probably think I am an ass who should only travel to all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. So be it.

I procrastinated a lot because I didn’t feel like writing this story, but I just can’t avoid the most important aspect of my month – almost – in India, which is the fact that I hated every day I spent there. Of course, India is a massive country and I only went to a few places. But I can say that Kolkata (former Calcutta), Varanasi and Delhi are cities that I hate with a passion. Mumbai is a city that I hate mildly. If I had to rank the 115 countries I visited in order of how much I like them, there is no way India would be close to making the top 100. Probably not the top 105, and I have been to some pretty horrible places.

The Republic of Rapistan

The first reason I hate India is the situation of women. If you ever read the news, the first thing that comes to mind when India is mentioned is, obviously, rape. India is a never-ending source of headlines like this one, a few weeks ago: “15-Year-Old Rape Victim in India Seeks Medical Treatment, Is Raped Again at the Hospital”.

In 2011, the Thompson Reuters Foundation polled 213 gender experts to determine the most dangerous countries in the world for women. India came in 4th, behind Afghanistan, the DRC and Pakistan. And #1 and #2 and #3 have major internal conflicts. At least it can pride itself on having narrowly beaten Somalia. Presumably because of this, you don’t see many women in public. I think the situation is somewhat better for women of higher socio-economic status, but as a tourist, you will only see these women in fancy shopping malls, where they go by car and driver. You know, so they don’t get raped on the way. And on the way back.

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This is a typical scene in the Mumbai subway. All dudes, everywhere. Creepy, rapey and overall completely disgusting. Add a roadside bomb here and there and you might as well be in Afghanistan. Housekeeping in hotels, waiters in restaurants, all men. You will pretty much only see men, everywhere.

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Some trains have women-only carriages. Mumbai even has entire trains that are women-only. These are guaranteed to be 82% rape-free, 8 times out of 10, or you get 15% off your next trip.

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A sign advises women visiting the mall that they should use stones and flower pots to defend themselves. I had to Google “eve-teasing”. It is an Indian euphemism for “being a sub-human degenerate fuck who deserves to be blood eagled on the town square”. If you don’t know what “blood eagled” means, don’t Google it. Your life is much better without knowing. My point is, if you think women should stay at home or be raped if they go outside, you absolutely deserved to be horribly tortured to death.

At some point in the trip, I went to buy train tickets for Michelle and I. After reaching the station, I returned to the hotel and rented a car and driver. Michelle asked me what changed my mind, so I showed her this picture and asked if she would like to go to the station’s enquiry counter while I kept a look on the luggage.

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She agreed with the car idea. But truth be told, there is a totally fine tourist ticket office at Delhi’s central station. What changed my mind was the fact that the station smelled like piss everywhere. And yes, there are toilets and yes, they are free. Continue reading

Thailand with a local guide: the most touristy day I ever spent in Bangkok.

 

As a general rule, there is no greater advantage when visiting a foreign country than having the benefit of a local guide. Since 2012, I have met many people around the world whom I then saw again in their home city. That gave me the benefit of visiting Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Munich, Sofia, Brasov, Prague, Freiburg, Potsdam, Berlin, the Estonian countryside, Riga, Tel-Aviv, Melbourne, Singapore, Guangzhou and even East Timor (ok, an expat) with local residents, or at least having a beer with them (or 24 beers, each, in the case of Vienna). Unsurprisingly, these places are mostly rich, by international standards, and one certainly meets more German than Thai tourists while travelling the world. But at Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, I went on a sunrise mountain tour with a Thai tourist – and three Germans, of course. Now that I think of it, I just realized I have never been to a German city where I didn’t know someone!

Educated at a top university in the United States, my new Thai friend vacationed in Norway last summer. Not the stereotypical Thai woman. We discussed the US Republican Primaries instead of having the normal conversation: “Canada cold? Yes, very cold”. Although she was working during the week, we got some lunch at Terminal 21, an air travel themed shopping mall. “Japanese OK? Sure”.  As I mentioned in a few of my recent stories, Japan seems to exercise a certain fascination in South-East Asia, and perhaps Thailand in particular. However, Mone lived for about 10 years in Japan and goes back several times a year, so in her case, it might be nostalgia. Anyway, I will go off on a big tangent here.

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At a restaurant famous for the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), I discovered this recipe involving a spicy curry I had never had before. I think it is called Katsu-karē. In a blind test, I would have thought I was having Indian food. I read a bit about it afterwards and learned that curry is now ubiquitous in Japan. It wasn’t introduced by the Indians, obviously, but by the British, mainly the Royal Navy, starting in the late 19th century, when India was part of the British Empire. Amusingly, because of this origin, it seems that in the old days Japanese people considered curry to be Western food!

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I’m happy to have tried it, but I was a little jealous of Mone’s “in-my-mind” more Japanese choice, tonkatsu with shredded cabbage.

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Another Japanese restaurant, the kind you will find in any posh Thai mall.

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Even McDonald’s, known for regionalizing its offerings, gives a Japanese (and a Thai) twist to its Thai menu!

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This is the kind of mall I am talking about, Siam Paragon. A kind of mall we certainly don’t have in Canada. Of course there are BMW and Lamborghini dealerships in it, but if you would rather be dead than seen driving such common cars, don’t worry, the mall also has  Rolls Royce and McLaren showrooms. And now I will go on a tangent within the tangent. Continue reading

Wat Rong Khun; possibly the coolest religious building in the world.

I already posted way too many pictures of temples from my Northern Thailand visit. But I will do it again, because this is very different. Unlike most temples I previously visited, this one is not 700 years old. Construction only began in the late 1990’s. Once more, in order to have the place to myself, I rented a motorbike and drove the 15 km or so between Chiang Rai and the temple before dawn.

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You will not see this if you go on a tour at noon.

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The temple is the idea of a successful Thai painter, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed the temple and had it built with his own money. You know how 99.99% of visual artists also work at Starbucks to pay the rent? Well, he’s the other 0.01%. He already sunk the equivalent of over a million US$, and the project is far from over. It is known as Wat Rong Khun.

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In fact, it may not be over until 2070! Thailand’s version of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia (which I never visited because the line-ups are always too damn long). Eventually it will include a number of buildings, complete with a learning centre and even a monastery. Continue reading

Cages protect you from wild animals. Unless you are also in the cage.

First of all; is it a good idea to put tigers in cages so people can go pet them? I honestly asked myself that question, and I will give you my answer later. But first, the tigers.

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Tiger #1, handler and photographer. They were much less nervous than I was. The $10 photographer fee is ridiculously high, but how often does one do this? By the way, the pictures are mine, unless I am in them.

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I have seen most big cats in the wild, but never tigers. I think they are the most awesome, beautiful species of big cats out there.

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And I am really amused by how “house cat-like” they behave!

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I had come mentally prepared for the idea of being in a cage with a tiger, but I didn’t realize there would be 3 of them. And as much as I was fine with having a tiger in front of me, having one behind me was a little unnerving. But not enough not to take a selfie.

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At Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom, you can chose to spend some time with baby, small, medium or large tigers (or all, if you want to splurge). I chose large.

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And they were massive! Amazing to think that this species of tigers, the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) is not particularly big by tiger standards. But a fully grown male can still weight well over 400 pounds! Continue reading

Motorbike ride to a mountain top golden temple at the crack of dawn.

Doi Sutep is a mountain, but to almost all tourists in Chiang Mai, the name stands for the temple on top of the mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Sutep. I actually visited the place several years ago as part of a tour, but I decided to go again, this time renting a little motorbike so I could go at the crack of dawn.

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Pre-sunrise view of Chiang Mai, on the way to the top.

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The famous 309 step dragon stair case. When I first visited, the dragons were impressive, but grey and dull. Evidently, they have since been restored. The oldest parts of the temple date back to the late 14th century, so about as old as Chiang Mai itself. Maybe even a little bit older.

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If you zoom in, you will see the sign requiring tourists to buy a ticket for upkeep (~$1). This is unusual in Thai temples, but in any case I couldn’t pay because the counter was not opened yet! I actually went after my visit, paid and said I didn’t need the ticket. Not sure the clerk understood what I was up to. He probably pocketed the money!

Although I was the only western tourist as far as I could tell, there were lots of locals, as I think a festival of some kind was about to begin. I think a  man tried to express this as I was having a cup of tea in a street side shop afterwards. Unfortunately, his good intentions were much better than his English, so I politely nodded and smiled a lot.

There were also a lot of people going up the mountain on high tech, expensive looking bicycles, dressed in very fancy looking sports gear. Since such things are beyond the means of the average Thai, I assumed they might be Japanese tourists, who visit such sites a lot. But my prejudice was misguided; they were all well-off Thais.

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The golden stupa as the first sun rays hit it. Absolutely worth getting up at the crack of dawn.

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Of couse, it is also beautiful at noon, but nothing like this. Continue reading