Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hong Kong

Star Ferry

We were in Hong Kong recently and I must say that it’s one of the great cities to be seen. It’s different from European cities like Paris, London or Rome, fascinating in a unique modern way but with a history all its own. Hong Kong Island is the center of everything. The ferryboats to the outer islands all start from there including the wonderful old Star Ferry that only charges 25 cents to take you to The Kowloon Peninsula, chugging across the harbor in 5 minutes.

Hong Kong’s restaurants are fantastic, among the best in the world.  One of my favorites is Caprice, the only French restaurant in Hong Kong to receive three prestigious Michelin stars. Chef Vincent Thierry leads Caprice along with his team of 25 chefs. It has superb views over Victoria Harbor and the Kowloon Peninsula from its location on the sixth floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. If you like fine french food, this is the place to go in Hong Kong.

Street in Wan Chai District of Hong Kong
We’ve been to Hong Kong many times and in future blogs I will talk more about my other favorite excursions and restaurants there. Until then . . . bon soir 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Banteay Ompeul, Cambodia

We traveled by helicopter to bring supplies to the remote village of Banteay Ompeul, which is in the district of Banteay Ampil. It is so far off the beaten track that the villagers hadn’t seen outsiders for 2 months and they were very happy to see us.
It was a fantastic experience with the villagers being very friendly and welcoming; they led us to Angkorian ruins that had been seen by very few people and were still in their original ruined state. It is a view of an ancient world that seemed like we were coming upon it for the first time. Unique experience.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Taj Mahal

No words or pictures can fully do justice to actually visiting the Taj Mahal. Most people take a train or car day trip from Delhi; many stay over night though-Oberoi Amarvilas is the best, with amazing views-to see the most famous and beautiful building in India. Started in 1630, it was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal. It was constructed over a period of twenty-two years, employing more than twenty thousand workers.

View from Room at Amarvilas
It has long been considered one of the world's most beautiful buildings and was built using marble slabs that were brought from a quarry 265 miles away. It was constructed entirely from white marble. Its structure was planned with great care and architects from all over the world were brought to Agra for this purpose. Upon the Shah’s death, his son Aurangazeb had him interred in it next to Queen Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan never visited the finished building while alive.

This beautiful building is sited on the banks of the Yamuna River. As one of the seven wonders of world, the Taj Mahal represents the outstanding body of Mughal buildings and architecture left by Shah Jahan and is expressed in the perfect form of the Taj Mahal.

If you’re lucky enough to be there, the Taj Mahal’s grounds are usually packed with tourists. Ignore the crowds and head towards the glistening white marble tomb. Climb the marble stairs and take off your shoes to pad quietly around the beautiful mausoleum. Try to imagine the love Shah Jahan must have felt for his wife… it’s an unforgettable experience.

Fatehpur Sikri

The red sandstone city Fatehpur Sikri is an interesting ghost town that can be seen on a day trip from Agra or a couple hour stop on a journey through Rajasthan. It was a thriving capital for roughly 20 years and the reason for its decline is still unknown. Though crowded and very, very hot, it’s a fantastic place to see if you’re in the area.

In 1568, Mughal Emperor Akbar, who was ruling India at the time, came to visit the small village of Sikri, some 40 km east of Agra. Despite the fact that he was married to his beautiful wife, Jodhabai and had over 300 concubines, he was still childless. But in Sikri, he encountered a saint who told him that his wife would give him a son within 3 years. And when the pregnancy occurred, Emperor Akbar decided to move his entire court to Sikri and renamed it Fatehpur - The City of Victory… Fatehpur Sikri.

In 1585, Akbar wearied of the hot, dry climate and gave up his palace in Fatehpur Sikri and moved back to the cooler climes of Lahore. Within a few years, the pomp and pageantry of the city vanished. It is thought that the city simply ran out of water to supply the populace, which hastened its decline, but the monuments endure to this day. There is a good sized modern village down the hill from the ruins and worshippers still come to the large Jama Masjid Mosque which was one of the first buildings to be constructed in the city.

The palace complex is truly beautiful with it’s many buildings. What remains now is a very well preserved ghost town that gives valuable insight into the architectural style from its period in history. The city has a mosque, several palaces, a caravanserai and broad streets and squares all made of Red Sandstone. It’s definitely worth a visit!


Ruins of Kankwari
While exploring Rajasthan we were lucky enough find a guide who took us far off the beaten track to the abandoned ruins of a ancient fort called Kankwari. It was built and used from about 1050-1350CE and dates to the days of Mughal rule in India. 

Kankwari Fort is a perfect example of a Vandurga, a type of ancient jungle fort, and being on the edge of the Sariska Wildlife National Park, there’s always a chance of seeing a tiger, monkeys, boars, antelope.

Villages Below
Aman Lunch at Kankwari Ruins with Wine from Chile
Legend has it that Dara Shikoh, the brother of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, served his lifelong exile at the Kankwari Fort. Aurangzeb exiled his brother from the capital after a serious disagreement and commanded him to a lifelong exile at the Kankwari, a fort that was built especially for this purpose. It is said that thousands of soldiers were stationed there guarding Dara Shikoh's activities and to protect that part of the Mughal empire.

Hidden Room/Original Paintings
If you like adventure, you will enjoy the journey to Kankwari fort. Driving on the bumpy dirt road up to the fort was an adventure in itself. The picturesque views of sprawling green landscapes, lush meadows and ancient villages that surround the fort make the difficult journey very worthwhile. Visiting ancient abandoned forts and cities in Rajasthan is an unforgettable experience, not to be missed.

Highly Recommended!


Entrance to Amanbagh
We explored northern India recently and especially had a good time while we were in Rajasthan. There's a lot to see and do there and among the places we stayed, one of the best was the Amanbagh Resort in the rural town of Alwar.

Suite Courtyard Gate
The trip getting there from Jaipur was an adventure in itself involving a bumpy rural road that connects a network of remote hamlets and villages along the ancient Aravalli Hills. The eroded Aravalli range of hills are of some of the worlds oldest mountains.
Beautiful Marble Suite
The land of the Alwar region consists of sandy plains interspersed with the dry Hills that contrasts with Amanbagh’s magnificent setting that is beautiful greenery. The hotel lies within a walled compound once used by the Maharajah of Alwar for his hunting camps in search of the tigers that used to roam in the hills. The hunting camp was abandoned long ago but the trees and vegetation continued to thrive due to a source of underground water.
Green Marble Tub
We stayed in a terrace haveli suite and it was fantastic. The haveli is on the upper floors of the resort; you climb a staircase that leads through tall wooden doors to a personal terrace that has views of the Aravallis and the pool. Inside, it’s Rajasthani pink marble walls and floors and the rooms have everything that you need from a sitting area to a king size bed. The  large bathroom is unbelievable with a large bathtub and sink carved from solid blocks of Udaipur green marble. Incredible. And a big plus, no TV!
Holy of Holies at Neelkanth
While you’re far off the beaten path, there’s tons of things to do there. We took quite a few trips to various ruined ancient cities and temples and especially enjoyed the Temple Town of Neelkanth which has 80 carved ruined temples and one of the most ancient temples of northern India, Neelkantheshwar. Legend has it that it’s butter lamp has burned for over 2000 years and it’s still burning today.
Kings Throne
We also liked hiking to the King’s Throne where we saw a stone throne that the King of Alwar had constructed on a hill above a valley. Legend has it that the king would chain a goat in the valley below to draw tigers that were hunting and the king would just sit in the throne and shoot them from above. Not very fair and not much of a hunter but those days are over. Now animals are respected and the most people do is shoot pictures if you’re lucky enough to see a tiger.
Part of what makes Amanbagh so great is it’s people and service. We have stayed at Amans all over the world and this is one of the best. We'll never forget this place… when you're there, stay at least a few days to really enjoy, relax and appreciate the hotel’s history, wonderful atmosphere and surrounding areas. Highly recommended!