Caught in a cyclone in the Andaman Islands

Neil Island

The Andaman Islands lie far off the Eastern coast of India, closer to Myanmar and Malaysia than India, and are a remote paradise. I flew from Kolkata to Port Blair and it was meant to be a relaxing couple of weeks on the beach after three months in the mountains and a month in the grimy cities of the plains. But Nature had a final surprise in store for me – a cyclone. One local told me it was the worst he’d seen for 35 years.

Flood at Kalapani

The weather forecast was for some rain, but in fact it started raining on my second day there and didn’t let up for three solid days. I was staying on Neil Island at the charming Kalapani, a collection of huts right by the beach. Winds gusting over 100 kph shook the palm trees and rattled the roofs. Ferries were cancelled stranding many tourists who missed flights. There was nothing to do but sit it out in the restaurant area and play cards. 

Cyclone damage

The second night was particularly bad and we all woke the next morning to a scene of devastation. The grounds were flooded on both sides. Getting to the beach or the road involved wading through waist-high flood waters. Several of the huts had lost their roofs. Luckily, they were not occupied. Several of us debated the meaning of a cyclone. Was it the same as a typhoon? What was a hurricane exactly? And when would it all end? Rumours began to circulate that food was running out.

Interior of the island

By day four the cyclone had passed, but it was to hit the mainland some time later and cause even more misery. I wandered into the narrow road and walked with dazed locals out to survey the damage. The Andamans are famous for their reefs and marine life, but the sea was churned up for the next week and visibility was poor. After four attempts to snorkel, clambering across razor-sharp reefs, I gave up and decided to concentrate on eating the fish instead. 

Lobster lunch

Eventually, the sun came out and I was able to explore the island. Nearby Havelock is the party island, but I was happy to stay the full two weeks on Neil. The beaches are not great for swimming, but they offer great walks past mangroves. The pace of life is laid back and islanders are friendly. At low tide you can see local fishermen harpooning fish left behind in the tidal pools, in the same way as they’ve probably done for centuries.

Mangroves at low tide

It was also fun to spend time wandering in the small market, watching vendors cleaning fish. And after an exhausting day lying in a hammock and feasting on prawns, lobster or red snapper, there were some pretty stupendous sunsets to admire.

Sunset on beach 3

It’s been a long journey from the mountains of Ladakh to these islands in the Andaman Sea, but my India trip ends here. I’ve had a wonderful time, seen some extraordinary sights and met some great fellow travellers along the way. Like previous trips to India, the country has provided awe as well as exasperation. I’ll definitely be back. 

Sunset on beach 3

In the Buddha’s footsteps – a week in Bihar

Monks at the Mahabodhi Temple

When you think of Buddhism in the Indian sub-continent, the Himalayas come to mind. Red-robed monks chanting in ancient temples set in high-altitude villages untouched by time. Colourful prayer flags strung out across mountain passes or fluttering above freezing glacial lakes. And so it’s surprising to discover that the Buddha spent much of his time on the lowland plains of northern India, particularly in the impoverished state of Bihar. 
Monks praying by the Bodhi tree

It was here in Bodhgaya, sitting under a Bodhi tree 2600 years ago, that he found enlightenment. And today it’s a buzzing pilgrimage site, with visitors from all over the Buddhist world along with Western tourists and locals. Consequently, it’s not quite the haven of peace and tranquillity I was hoping for, but it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s the Buddhist equivalent of Mecca, Jerusalem or the Vatican.

Monk at the Mahabodhi Temple

An offshoot of the original Bodhi tree stands behind the main Mahabodhi temple and is the focus of particularly intense worship. Circumnavigating the temple, you can see monks wearing the red robes of Tibet and Central Asia as well as those with the saffron robes common to South East Asia. There are old men and women from Tibet twirling hand-held prayer wheels, troupes of elegant Japanese ladies, camera-wielding Westerners (yes, that’s me!) and also huge groups of Hindus. I only learned when I arrived here that Hindus believe Buddha was a reincarnation of Vishnu. 

Monks at the Mahabodhi Temple

Sadly, the town of Bodhgaya which has grown up around the temple is yet another unpleasant, traffic-choked, dusty and noisy Indian town drowning under its own rubbish with the inevitable rampant and venal commercialism which is rapidly becoming deeply tiresome. Luckily, I stayed in a little guesthouse 2 kilometres outside the centre in a slightly quieter neighbourhood.

Giant Buddha statue, Bodhgaya

A few hours from Bodhgaya lies the more laid back town of Rajgir where I spent a couple of nights. There are some intriguing Hindu sites around, like the marks in the ground supposedly made by Krishna’s chariot. But I was more interested in taking the chairlift to the top of a hill to see the Vishwashanti Stupa, a fairly modern Japanese temple. The Buddha spent a lot of time in this area meditating and preaching. It’s also an important place for Jains, as the founder of Jainism spent 14 years here.

Vishwashanti Stupa, Rajgir

I took a wonderful tonga, or horse and cart, to visit some sites, then hopped on a local bus to visit the nearby ruins at Nalanda, which in its time (1300 years ago) was one of the world’s greatest universities and an important centre of Buddhist learning. There’s not a huge amount left to see, but the site became a World Heritage Centre just this year and it’s a peaceful place to wander and reflect on an age which valued education, thinking and scholars more than we do today. As often when I’m in such places, I’m left wondering what of today’s world will remain to be visited by future tourists and exactly what cultural legacy will be left behind. 

Monks sightseeing at Nalanda