Goa in the west coast of India is often described as a land rich in cultural milieu, silvery beaches and tantalising food. Some travellers swear it is the perfect spot for beach therapy while others remember it for its intoxicating nightlife and world heritage architectural sites.
When AirAsia (partnering Goa Department of Tourism) organised a trip for members of the media to experience what the multi-cultural state in India had to offer, I jumped at the chance.
Sun, beach and fun
The first thing that caught my attention in Goa were its pristine beaches. Adorned with swaying palm trees, beach shacks and water sports, it’s no surprise why its sandy shores captivate millions of tourists each year. The sun rises around 6am so if you’re planning to take a stroll along the beach, ensure you bring along your straw hat and sunblock as it tends to get hot and humid around 6.30am. Yes, that early in the morning.
Candolim beach in north Goa is a 3km picturesque shore that forms part of the Arabian Sea. As one of the longest beaches in the state, the place offers solitude and tranquillity from the chaos of other crowded Goan beaches.
At Cavelossim beach, I had the chance to witness fishermen coming ashore with the freshest catch of the day including vison (kingfish), karchani (butter fish) and koncar (long-fin cavalla). To experience this, you have to be at the beach by 6am. The fishermen are a group of happy-go-lucky fellows and, if you’re lucky (like me), they might ask you to join them for a simple breakfast of piping hot tea and freshly baked Goan bread on the beach.
The state is also a shopper’s paradise, especially those who like beachwear, trinkets and handicraft. At the night market at Calangute beach in north Goa, we were spoilt for choice with the array of items ranging from silver accessories and textiles to clay terracotta figurines. Another popular shopping spot in the north is the Anjuna flea market (every Wednesday), which offers knick-knacks, spices, footwear and leather wear. Note: Be prepared to do a fair bit of bargaining with these seasoned traders who tend to jack up prices for tourists.
Goa is known for its offshore floating casinos at the Mandovi river, a prime waterway in the state. We had the opportunity to step on board a three-decker luxury cruise liner, the Deltin Royale, which boasts 123 gaming rooms. We went on a 10-minute ferry ride across the river and boarded the floating casino that’s open 24/7. There is a dress code, though, so ensure you are attired in smart-casual wear. Slippers and shorts are a no-no.
Unlike other Indian states, Goa has a distinct history. It was under Portuguese colonial rule for 451 years (till its annexation in 1961). In the span of 400 years, the colonialists consolidated their culture, language and propagation of Christianity.
On the first day, tour guide-cum-historian Sanjeev V. Sardesai took us on a stroll around Fontainhas, the old Latin Quarter in the state capital of Panaji, where buildings were built in the Portuguese neoclassical style. It reminded us of historical Malacca; its buildings feature wide arches, tiled roofs, spacious verandas and intricate patterned wrought-iron rails. The houses are painted in vivid hues (sunny yellow, sky blue, bright pink), a contrast from traditional Indian houses with thatched roofs.
The Portuguese influence can also be seen in the way Goans dress. Unlike other Indian states (where locals favour the traditional dress), women (elderly aunts included) here wear all sorts of attire, ranging from shift dresses, skirts and blouses, to salwar kameez and saris.
On day two, Sanjeev took us on a tour of Goan forts. Fort Aguada – erected in 1613 – is a historic monument built at Candolim beach. Aguada means water in Spanish, and the fort derived its name from a freshwater spring within the fort that provided water to Portuguese vessels. Another unique feature is the fort’s four-storey lighthouse, erected in 1864 and the oldest of its kind in Asia. The fort is huge so bring along an umbrella or hat as it can get pretty hot as you walk along the monument.
We also visited Fort Reis Magos, an impressive fortress built by Alfonso de Albuquerque (who led the conquest of Malacca) in 1543. At the top of the blockhouse, we got a breathtaking view of Mandovi River.
To complete our tour of the forts, Sanjeev insisted we visit Fort Tiracol, a fortress in Tiracol, a township at the northern tip of Goa bordering Maharashtra. The journey to Tiracol may be a tad tiring so you may want to think twice about visiting three forts in a day, unless you are a fortified fan.
A trip to Goa wouldn’t be complete without a visit to its churches. On the third day, we checked out 16th century Bom Jesus Basilica in Old Goa. It is a Unesco World Heritage site that houses relics of St Francis Xavier (another person Malaccans, especially, will know), a missionary who spread the Roman Catholic faith in Asia in the early 16th century.
Asia’s largest cathedral, Se Cathedral, is just a stone’s throw away from the Basilica. Step into the church and you will be left speechless staring at the majestic church’s display of beautiful gilded woodcarving and decorated walls and ceiling. Take a three-minute walk and you will find yourself at St Cajetan Church, which bears a striking to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Although Goa underwent an immense conversion to Christianity during the Portuguese rule, 70% of Goans are Hindus. Festivals such as Holi, Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali and Chaitra Pournima are celebrated in full fervour. We managed to visit Shri Santhadurga temple in Kavalem, a beautiful place of worship with Indo-Portuguese architecture.
Culture and tradition
The fourth day was spent having a deeper understanding of Goan culture. We stepped foot in Ancestral Goa in Loulotim, a preservation of Goan tradition, arts, culture and socio-cultural development. The museum-cum-parkland is home to India’s longest laterite sculpture of Sant Mirabai strumming on the ancient instrument known as ektara, carved by Maendra Alvares.
Alvares’ sculpture, measuring 14m by 5m, is breathtaking – especially its intricate detailing. It’s hard to imagine he took only a month to complete the piece!
“Twenty-one years ago, I had a dream to create the sculpture for Goa. The goddess Mira was devoted to Lord Krishna. I was taken up by Sant Mira’s undying admiration. Her dedication and life are an example for us to follow. I spent hours working on it and suffered blisters on my fingers in the process,” said Alvares when interviewed.
A 30-minute drive from Alvares’ masterpiece is Goa Chitra in Benaulim, an ethnographic museum which displays Goan artefacts, ranging from traditional costumes to musical instruments and farming tools. You will be awed by the transportation museum which houses over 100 carriages, ranging from horse-drawn carts to hearses and wooden prams.
Eat, drink and be merry
During our trip, we sampled various Goan delights, such as Goan fish curry, prawn curry, mutton vindaloo curry and chicken xacuti curry. If you have a sweet tooth, try lip-smacking bebinca, a layered cake made from flour, sugar, ghee, egg and coconut milk. Though it looks like the Indonesian cake lapis, the Goan version tastes more like a sticky pudding with a strong coconut flavour. I was pleasantly surprised to find dodol, a popular Malaysian toffee-like confection, on their menu. The taste, however, is different – Goan dodol is made from coconut, jaggery (cane sugar) and rice flour – and it is thicker, akin to toffee. Another must-try is serradura, a creamy Portuguese dessert made from whipped cream and crushed tea biscuits. What a sinful delight! It tasted yummy but was a tad too sugary for my taste buds.
After you’ve sampled Goa’s savoury and sweet offerings, down it with kaju feny, a locally brewed spirit made from ripened cashew apples. Produced exclusively in Goa, feny tastes like moonshine with sweet hints of cashewnut. Be warned, though – this potent liquor contains over 45% alcohol and you should have it in small doses. But if the pungency of feny isn’t quite your cup of tea, try Goan port wine, a sweet liquor that can make anyone “happy and merry”.
Since spices are an essential ingredient in Goan curries, spices such as black pepper, cardamom and nutmeg are some of the major spices grown in the state. At Tropical Spice Plantation in Ponda, we took a guided tour on spices and their medicinal properties. It felt like a walk in my mother’s garden (filled with medicinal plants, herbs and spices). It was an enjoyable experience to learn the benefits of different spices, such as turmeric, nutmeg and star anise. During the right season (October to February), you might get to pluck a few cardamom pods fresh from the tree.
Goa is “spicy” enough to entice me back… again!
AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Goa on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.