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Friday, October 20, 2017

Cinque Terre

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ITALIAN RIVIERA

Simply enchanting! A sight that provokes a longing to return again and again. As our train passed through a series of tunnels after La Spezia and was about to enter Riomaggiore station, the openings in the tunnel walls provided a fleeting view of the precipice leading almost vertically down to a spectacular expanse of blue Mediterranean.Crystal blue, totally different from colours of seas I have seen so far. So distinct that this shade of blue has come to be known as Mediterranean Blue. Riomaggiore is one of the five villages on the rugged portion of Italian Riviera. The other four villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola. All these five villages and the surrounding hillsides dot the Riviera and belong to Cinque Terre (meaning ‘five lands’) National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since almost thousand years from now, residents of these villages carved terraces on the rugged and steep rocky lands right upto the cliffs. These heavily terraced hills were used to cultivate grapes and olives. And today this region flourishes for its vineyards, some of the best Italian wines, olives and fishing.

Riomaggiore Rail Station



Mediterranean Sea


A view of the Riviera

Cinque Terre

Blue sea


Tunnel leading to the beach at Riomaggiore

Shop for water sports equipments

Water sports equipments are available on rental for tourists

Beach

Riomaggiore

Riviera 

Mediterranean Blue

Map of Cinque Terre National Park, UNESCO World Heritage site


Cafes and shop selling souvenirs and local wares

Riomaggiore beach area



Houses at Riomaggiore



Cinque Terre

6

Photographs : Arundhati Sengupta

How to get to Cinque Terre from Florence ( Firenze )
There are several trains run by Trenitalia from Florence to Pisa and from Pisa to La Spezia. In order to travel to Riviera and Cinque Terre from Florence, one can plan out a comfortable day visit. Buy a ticket at Florence Rail Station for your journey to Riomaggiore. Florence is a very friendly station and buying a ticket is an easy task. Change trains at Pisa and La Spezia. Florence to Pisa takes less than an hour, while Pisa to La Spezia takes around one hour and La Spezia to Riomaggiore about ten minutes.

As Cinque Terre region is heavily terraced upto the cliffs no motorable roads came up over the centuries due to ruggedness and complexities of the Italy’s landmass along the Mediterranean Sea. In absence of such corporate development, the region has retained its pristine beauty. But Italian Railways has done a great job in providing connections to these five villages which otherwise was largely cut off from the larger world. Prior to rail service boat was the only lifeline linking the isolated communities to the larger world. Railways have made properly guarded pathway around the cliff walls for a spectacular view of the Mediterranean lapping úp against the rocky shores, and also a tunnel running parallel to train tunnel for tourists to take a shorter and easier route to sea level.There are three to four cafes on the riviera where one can enjoy delectable seafood and Italian wine. Washrooms are located near the cafes and at Riomaggiore station where entry fee per person is is one euro. The other shops located at the shore end of the tunnel cater to water sports products like kayaks,scuba diving equipments etc. on rental, nice souvenirs and local products.


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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Bridge on the River Kwai - Revisited

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River Kwai


I first saw Bridge on the River Kwai when I was just a school boy in Lucknow.I remember seeing the Academy Award winning movie at Mayfair theater on Hazratgunj. The film was superb in all respect. Legendary Director David Lean with great casts like Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins – shot in entirety in Sri Lanka; superb real life photography and based on a true story on construction of a Bridge by POWs(prisoners of war) of the Allied force, held in cramped swampy rain forest camps set up by the Japanese army during World War II. The bridge was the most infamous section of about 250 miles Siam railroad track from Bang Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, and was built to support the Japanese Imperial Army’s forces in Burma (now Myanmar). The film shows the travails of POWs engaged in construction of the Bridge in 1942–43.There were many deaths in these camps during construction period owing to the squalid conditions the POWs were forced to live, and work in mosquito,insect and snake infested rainforest around the river.The railroad nicknamed ‘Death Railway’ because of heavy casualties during construction of the Bridge, is in reality located in Thailand. When we got down at Kwai station and crossed the famous Bridge on foot, the feeling was strangely that of déjà vu. More so when Colonel Bogey wafted over the River Kwai from the other end of the Bridge. A fidler was playing the tune with remarkable semblance to the original.



On way to Thonburi station


Thonburi station


Thai countryside from the moving train


Passing Kanchanaburi


Kwai station


River Kwai Bridge station


The real bridge on the river Kwai


A closer view of the bridge


Another view of the bridge


On the iron bridge built by the POWs


The Bridge overlooks floating cafes,eateries along the river


Engine of the train used by the Japanese Imperial Army


Gallery inside the War Museum


Picture Gallery in the War Museum


A monastery on the other side of the Bridge


War Museum near the River Kwai station  The war cemetery of  POWs who died serving as labourers for construction of the Bridge and the Death Railroad is located at Kanchanaburi about 5km from here.


Train from Nam Tok end crossing the Bridge on the River Kwai


Train returning from Nam Tok enters Kwai Bridge Station


The trains are like the ones seen in western cowboy movies. One can have nice and exciting views standing at the rear end of the train.

Standing here reminded me of another war movie 'Von Ryan's Express'.




A picturesque junction station on way to Kanchanaburi




Chao Phraya River In order to come to Thonburi Station one has to cross the river.


BTS sky train 

Photographs by : Arundhati Sengupta 


How to get there?


We wanted to take the morning 7.50 train from Thonburi.

Since we stayed at Sukhumvit, we caught the early morning sky train from the

nearest BTS station Phrom Phong.We got down at the next BTS station Asok, walked down to the connecting metro Sukhumvit station. From Sukhumvit station we took a metro upto the terminal station Hua Lamphong.This station connects to the main railway station of Bangkok. From here we hired a Tuktuk to Bangkok Noi (now known as Thonburi station), about 6 km from Hua Lamphong. Alternatively, one  can take a ferry from Chayo Praya river and cross over to the other side and then take a Tuktuk or taxi for Thonburi. Tuktuks in Bangkok are very fast and well maintained. When we returned we took a taxi upto Bang Wa BTS station on Silom line. The station is on Thonburi side. Got down at National Stadium, changed to Siam line and took another train to Phrom Phong.
There are only two trains from Thonburi to Nam Tok. The morning train is at 07.50 Hrs. Takes about 3 hours to Kanchanaburi / Kwai. Fare around 2 usd. Cute little train, clean and comfortable with vendors selling food items on the running train. If you want to have a hearty breakfast before boarding the train you can enjoy Hamburger and Ovaltine at cafes in the market opposite Thonburi rail station. The train chugs through the picturesque Thai countryside and if one is interested to continue upto the terminal station Nam Tok, one can enjoy crossing the Bridge on train and also see Wampo Viaduct and Hellfire Pass ( also constructed by the POWs during World War II). 

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Phnom Penh - from Killing Fields to a Humane City

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Phnom Penh-a great Cambodian City

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Time began with the Big Bang about 13.77 billion years ago. Our universe originated and began expanding from Day One which included formation of our planet Earth. But not so long ago, on 17th April 1975, a Cambodian school teacher Pol Pot (who had been to Paris on scholarship to study Radio Electronics and returned to Cambodia to take up a teaching assignment) declared Year Zero in Cambodia. That was in line with the concept of Year One declared during the French Revolution. The idea was to discard and destroy all culture and traditions within the society and bring in revolutionary culture. President Lon Nol fled Cambodia on 1st April 1975 following a bloody civil war that lasted for five years. And on 17th April 1975 a swarm of locusts in the guise of Khmer Rouge descended on Phnom Penh to devour teachers, artists and intelligentsia of the Cambodian capital. Pol Pot’s intention was to eliminate threats to his idea of agrarian society. That was the beginning of a carnage that even seemed to surpass the holocaust under Hitler in many ways. Pol Pot's army flushed out their own people, i.e. Cambodians. Forcibly sent those to toil and perish on remote agricultural fields due to vagaries of exposures to unfriendly and totally alien atmosphere, and those who showed or hinted even slightest resistance were packed off to detention and torture camp in the city (S-21 Prison – a High school taken over by Khmer Rouge).Brother Duch, also referred as Butcher Duch, was the head of this prison camp. The prisoners went through inhuman torture on instructions of this former school teacher before being taken for execution at an old Chinese graveyard about 15 km away from Phnom Penh. The executions were painful as axes, iron rods, shovels etc. were used in place of bullets which were found expensive. After execution the bodies were dumped in hastily dug shallow graves. As I walked down the Killing Field (which is now Cheung Ek Museum) near Phnom Penh with audio guide I was stupefied as to how such inhuman event could have taken place and that too for almost over four long years . So sombre is the tale of Cambodia in the seventies that it befuddles a normal human being to wonder as to how distorted and warped were the minds of the perpetrators and how they survive today with such memories as most of them went scot free. Strangest of all is that in the seventies, when we were students, we never even got an inkling of such a massive genocide. Whereas we joined the world in condemning the gruesome acts of Hitler and his army during World War II. So hush-hush were the acts that it was only in 1979 that two Vietnamese photojournalists first discovered S-21 prison camp  and since then till 2009 around 300 such Killing Fields and 23745 mass graves have been discovered in Cambodia. As on date a sordid statistics tell us that out of eight million Cambodians, Pol Pot wiped out three million from the face of our planet. Still he lived a full family life with his grandchildren in a village near Thailand border till his death in 1998.


 Phnom Penh today is a totally different metropolis. Kudos to the generation born after 1980. They have made the city benign and at the same time smart and lively. It’s a sheer coincidence that we stepped into Phnom Penh on the first day of three day long water and moon festival. Initially in our hotel rooms at Tea House Urban Resort we mistook the boom after sunset for thunderstorm. But when we were told about the festival we wasted no time and headed for the Mekong River. Illuminated Royal Palace, Illuminated boats floating slowly on the Tonle Sap river, fireworks producing huge multicoloured fire balls and exploding with thunderous sound just by the side of the full moon over the river were spectacles that heralded the start of three days water moon celebration. This festival signifies victory of the naval force during the reign of Jayavarman VII in 13th century, unique phenomenon of reversal of current in Tonle Sap river (the river starts flowing towards Mekong),beginning of fishing season and coincidence of full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. With each boom of thunder ball the huge crowd would turn into an ecstatic rapture, cheering and clapping. A sense of euphoria prevails, which is commendable in a nation deeply disturbed and upset over the carnage that took place hardly forty years back. In the day Boat races take place on the Tonle Sap and Mekong where thousands of skilled oarsmen from all over Cambodia participate. As foreigners we were given a place in the tent next to their Royal tent for watching the events.. We were also served Cambodian Beers free – a part of their hospitality. The boat race was spectacular and colourful. We enjoyed every bit of it. We also saw the Royal Palace. The legendary King Norodom Sihanouk once lived in this palace. Now most of it is museum. Shunning all that happened in the past, Phnom Penh is a remarkable city. A clean city, wide roads, disciplined traffic, friendly Tuktuk drivers, nice Khmer and Vietnamese eateries and very hospitable locals- polite and always ready to help.



Water moon festival takes place in November and regarded as the biggest festival in Cambodia. Decorated and Illuminated Boats parade slowly on the Tonle Sap River at Phnom Penh. As this is an age old festival the boat is decorated with images of Angkor Wat and the nagas,


View of another illuminated boat


The Royal Palace on the shores of Tonle Sap and Mekong decorated and illuminated on festival nights.


Crowds throng the sprawling area outside the Royal Palace to watch the fireworks. The full moon can be seen behind the fire balls.


The cute mannequins of Cambodian ladies welcome you to the Royal Palace.


The Royal Palace of Cambodia


Another view of the Royal Palace


The main thoroughfare outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh


Colourful Boat Races take place on the river Tonle Sap and Mekong during the three day long Water Moon Festival. Skilled oarsmen come from all over Cambodia and is held on a grand scale in Phnom Penh



A view of the Boat Race


Pavilion for foreign tourists. 


Silk Island on Mekong River


Watching the process of silk weaving



Evening Cruise on Mekong

Phnom Penh from Mekong



Photographs of Choeung Ek Killing Field near Phnom Penh

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. This monument marked by Buddhist stupa encase around 5000 human skulls exhumed from the mass graves of the Killing field and can be viewed through clear acrylic windows constructed on all the sides of the memorial.

Killing Tree 

A view of the Killing Field . Pits are still littered with human bones and signs are put all over cautioning against stepping over the bones

This is the spot where trucks used to offload the hapless victims.


Working office of the Executioners


The Killing Tools. These tools were used as bullets were costly

Pol Pot
Photographs of a celebrated singer and actress of Cambodia who perished during Pol Pot's regime




Nice highway which connects Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and passes through lovely countryside,traditional Khmer houses and rice paddies.

Giant ibis buses are very comfortable. Although there are no on board toilets, these buses stop at places enroute where proper wash rooms are available.It stops for lunch or refreshment at Banyan Tree restaurant on NH 6 near Kampong Thom


Photographer : Arundhati Sengupta


Getting to Phnom Penh: We travelled by giant Ibis Bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. This is a comfortable and exciting mode of travel between the two places which are about 300 km apart. Bus journey takes around 5 hours. Tickets are available online.


Where to stay: There are several good hotels at Phnom Penh. We stayed at TeaHouse Urban Resort.It is close to the Royal Palace and also very centrally located. From the Ibis Bus stop we had taken a Tuktuk to come to this hotel.This hotel has excellent massage parlour,swimming pool, WiFi etc. Breakfast was complimentary. We booked this through Booking.com. There is a TukTuk stand right outside the hotel. TukTuk service is also available for S-21 Prison and the Killing Field which is around 15 km from the city. It takes around 35 to 40 minutes from the hotel to the Killing Field. It takes around half a day at the Killing Field.



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