Monday, November 10, 2008

The Beacons at Agra

When I saw the announcement for the new seven wonders of the world I thought to myself, only seven? We are surrounded by so many spectacular feats of architecture and history, how do you shortlist just seven? The Seven New Wonders - Christ the Redeemer, The Colosseum, Machu Pichu, Chichén Itzá, Petra, Great Wall of China and Taj Mahal. Of the seven, I've been to two and now I can say that I've added one more. When we planned our trip to India, we figured we would save the best for last. The Taj Mahal. One of the most photographed buildings in the world. I've seen it so many times in photos, on tv, in the movies that I feel like I've been there myself. And who could forget that picture of the late Princess Diana sitting on the marble stool looking delicate and forlorn against the white marble mausoleum. 

Words cannot begin to describe the feeling I got standing before the Taj Mahal

We woke up bright and early to visit the Taj. Our hotel is barely a minutes walk to the Eastern Gate of the Taj Mahal. To preserve the area, local authorities have banned a no-car zone 500m all around the perimeter of the Taj. It was quiet and the air felt moist. It now costs Rp750 to get in but they justify it by giving you a small bottle of water and paper covers for your shoes. Daylight was just breaking through as we queued to get in. I took a deep breath, fearing I would be underwhelmed by jaded old me.  And yet, as I looked at it for the first time, my mind went blank. It was everything and nothing that I had imagined. I hate to sound corny but the feeling I got can only be described as breathtaking. First of all, its huge. If the Taj was a symbol of Shah Jahan's love for Mumtaz Mahal, then he must have loved her ALOT! Talk about love having no measure. Sigh, its so deeply romantic. It was so serene despite the hordes of people. I'm glad we went during off-peak season and so early in the morning. We just sat at the steps and watched the sun spread its warmth over the marble mausoleum. 

After a couple of hours, the other beacon beckoned. The Oberoi Hotel. Last night when we arrived at our lodgings, the divas within screamed to be let out. Hotel Sheela is dirt cheap and provides pretty basic lodging. Plus the proximity to the Taj Mahal makes the price unbeatable. However, we were quite tired by this time and just wanted to be somewhere better, nicer. And it can't get any better and nicer than The Oberoi. It was calling out to us from the moment we arrived in Agra. We decided to go check it out, just for fun. From the moment we walked in we were filled with such a sense of relief. The rack rate was way over our budget but somehow Edwin managed to wrangle us a very good rate. Well, that one night costs more than the whole trip put together. Oh but it was worth every sen! Malaysian hotels could take a page out of their book. 
The Oberoi - view from the bar's balcony. Watching the classical Indian dance performance. Amazing! Whats more amazing are the DIVINE cookies they serve with coffee and tea. Oh my god, died-and-gone-to-heaven! Especially the dark chocolate cookies which were crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. 

Now this was service. Real service. The staff were always switched on. No "um"s or "ah"s to be heard. They were always around when you needed something yet they never hovered. Most of the time, they anticipated our needs and went above and beyond. The best part was, we really felt like they wanted to do it and not because they had to. How does one go back to mediocrity after this? Every room has a view of the Taj Mahal. You could just lie in bed and stare out the window all day. We had drinks on the balcony of the hotel bar and watched the sunset over the Taj Mahal. At the same time, there was also a classical Indian dance performance going on at the pavilion before us. Now this is the life.  

I've decided that this is the only way to truly enjoy the Taj Mahal and Agra, that is, extravagantly. Admiring the Taj Mahal through the floor to ceiling window of the luxurious standard room (yes imagine what the suites must be like) from the 750-thread count cotton sheets clad luxurious king sized bed in a bespoke hand block-printed cotton robe sipping a strong cup of Assam tea after a long hot soak in the mat salleh sized bath tub. We also had a phenomenal dinner at the fine dining Indian restaurant called Esphahan but I will have to post about it another time until I sort out my pictures. See note below.

Note - blogspot has been irritating me to no end! Grrrrr my pictures appear to be small even at the largest setting. And now I can't even post pictures. Or maybe I'm just technologically challenged. Er, help anyone?