Category: India

Kerala

“Where’s that?” has been one of the most common replies from people learning of our latest holiday destination. Kerala is the smallest state of southern India, and is a popular holiday destination for hippie types and package tourists from the UK.

10 hours flight from London Gatwick gets you to the state capital, Trivandrum. The airport was the usual tedium, and we emerged at about 7am local time and got our first shock of the holiday, in finding out that the coach transfer to the start of our tour was going to take FIVE hours.

With a brief breakfast stop en route, we arrived in Kumarakom for two nights there. This turned into a not-so-free upgrade to the Radisson, since our expected hotel was full. “not-so-free” because our bill for two lunches and dinners was about three times what it would have been at the Backwater Ripples.

It was rather nice, though.

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The tour included a so-called “sunset cruise” on the lake, but we were back before the sun actually set. At least it gave me a stationary position to take some sunset pictures from!

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Yvonne’s review of the hotel, and the others on the trip, can be found on Trip Advisor – essential reading for any trip!

This stop was our introduction to the bizarre alcohol licensing that exists in Kerala.

Officially it’s a “dry” state.

The bottle shops are run by the government.

It’s very difficult for hotels and restaurants to get a liquor licence – hence even at the Radisson the bill showed “Open Food” for the drinks. Other places had the beer bottles left on the floor under the tables wrapped in newspaper, beer served in coffee mugs, and even brought to the table in teapots! Various bills showed “Special Soft Drinks”, “Pop”, or something similar. Suffice to say it wasn’t a problem getting a few beers with dinner!

Once we’d recovered from the travelling, we get back on the coach for another five hour journey, heading east into the foothills of the Western Ghats, the mountain range that marks the boundary between Kerala and the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

The destination was Thekkady, and after some impressive driving (I wouldn’t like to drive a 50 seater bus up those narrow roads), we arrived safely at the Cardamon County Hotel. From here we visited the spice gardens, rode an elephant, and went to the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary.

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We didn’t see any tigers – there are just 43 of them in the reserve, and they’re largely nocturnal. But we did see wild elephant, lots of birds, and a playful otter family.

 

The next leg of the trip was possibly the slowest – taking 2 hours to travel the first 40km (25 miles or so) over the hills from Thekkady to Munnar.  At an altitude of 6,000 ft with rolling hills, Munnar is called the “Scotland of India”.

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Not much of the Scottish glens are covered with tea trees, though!  The taller trees dotted around are white oaks – which provide shade and a natural windbreak for the crop.

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Yvonne surrounded by tea – some might say a tea-drinkers paradise.  Personally I can’t stand the stuff!

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Tea picking is still a largely manual activity.  These fields are owned by TATA, a huge Indian company who own Tetley tea in the UK.  It might be hard work, but 80% of the profits go to the workers.

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After Munnar, we drove back to the coast to the city ofCochin, home to the oldest Jewish Synagogue in the Commonwealth, and got treated (and I use that word in its widest sense!) to a display of Kathakali dancing.  It might be an ancient tradition, but it bored me silly and the dancers looked like pantomime dames!

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The highlight of Cochin for me was the Chinese fishing nets on the beach there – some of these have been handed down through the same family for 500 years, though I suspect a few running repairs might have been made in that time!

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We also saw a snake charmer on the streets of Cochin.  While Trivandrum is the capital, Cochin is the more cosmopolitan city and more industry oriented. The legacy of the spice trade is clearly visible – it’s still the home of the Pepper Exchange, where the world price of this valuable commodity, known as the King of Spices, is still set.

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The shortest day’s travel took us to Alleppy to board our houseboat for the next night.  15 years ago, some enterprising soul converted three rice barges to houseboats to take tourists around the backwaters.  There are now 650 of them, and another 200 in construction – my advice is to get there before they build too many more!

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One slightly bizarre sight on the route was this duck farm – thousands of them covering the waterway from bank to bank!

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Sunset over the backwaters was stunning!

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The final leg of the trip was down to Kovalam for our stay at the Leela Kempinski hotel there. The beaches at Kovalam were something of a disappointment after the clean golden sand of Goa – here they were covered in dirty-looking black mineral deposits and not as welcoming.  The weather was also something of a disappointment during this week – it rained every single day, sometimes for as much as 7 hours without stopping.  At one point it was raining so hard we walked back to our room in our swimwear!

The weather did break enough to allow us to venture out to the restaurants along Lighthouse Beach – excellent dinners and decent toasties for lunch, and a fraction of the price of the hotel food.

 

 

A tale of two airlines

In the first tale, despite a 90 minute delay I get a complimentary hot meal, whisked across the airport to make the connection, and generally made to feel like I was welcome on board.

In the second tale, I hand over my passport with the boarding card in the photo page.  The stroppy cow on the gate pulls out the boarding card, and gives the passport back to me and asks me to open it at the photo page because “it’s quicker for her”, then yells at the rest of the queue to open their passports to the photo page.  I point out that I’d left the boarding card in the right place, but this was obviously too much effort for her.  The same airline proceeds to charge me for a cup of mediocre coffee in a penny pinching exercise that would have warmed what little heart Ebeneezer Scrooge had.

Now, one of these airlines was Kingfisher Airlines, a new airline in India that knows how to look after their customers.  The other was Aer Lingus, a sad and sorry excuse for an airline whose raison d’etre seems to be to compete with Ryan Air on the grounds of poor service and customer abuse, and who I only fly with because there isn’t really an alternative and if I could get the ferry to Ireland in future, I would.

Can you guess which is which?

India Trip and Photos, Part II

After Agra, the trip on to Jaipur seemed never ending, and even the chaos of the Indian roads failed to keep our attention and most of us dozed for some part of the trip. We arrived at our hotel, and decided we just wanted a quick bite to eat before calling it a day.

The following morning we rose bright and early to get up and visit the Ambar fort. A fleet of 100 elephants make 4 trips each to take the first 800 visitors up to the fort on elephant back: the rest of the days visitors have to go up in the local rattly 4x4s (which is how everyone comes back down).

The fort is spectacular, and the mountainous terrain makes the view more impressive after the flat country of the last few days. From there we travel through the city of Jaipur to visit a carpet factory, a jewellers, and the astronomical observatory including the biggest sundials I’ve ever seen. The carpet factory offered a chance to buy a rather unusual souvenir in the form of a hand made woollen carpet. Much of the city of Jaipur is built from the local red sandstone, and what isn’t, is painted pink leading to it’s tagline: the pink city.

After the day in Jaipur we back our bags and head back down to Goa, and our final hotel of the trip, the Ronil Beach Resort in Baga Beach. The rooms prove to be basic but mostly clean, but the aircon works, and the restaurants and beach are an easy stroll. You kind of have two choices when staying in Goa: either the north, which we went for, with more basic hotels, but with restaurants, bars and nightlife on the doorstep, or the south, with the big all-inclusive hotels and have to take a taxi if you want to go anywhere.

The resort towns of Baga, Calangute and Candolim run into one another along this part of the coast, with a continuous run of shacks along the beach providing sunbeds, drinks, and excellent food, all very cheaply.

The system on the beach is excellent: all the shacks have sunbeds available, which will be set out with sunshades to your desires. They’re all free, as long as you’re buying from their bar, so we were kept topped up with drinks, and had a convenient sport for lunch each day. We picked one called “The Buzz” largely because it was the first one away from the cluster of noise and watersports as we came onto the beach. I recommend their toasted sandwiches as well as the Indian offerings on their menu!

We tended to migrate from there back up the beach for a sunset drink before freshening up and finding dinner.

The food choices in Baga were excellent. We can highly recommend Kim Faa (Chinese) and Fiesta (Italian) if you want a change from Indian food. But the Indian food was the highlight for us, with excellent meals everywhere. A couple of specific mentions:

  • East meets West – great setting, fantastic food, but slow service, and wouldn’t move us to a table away from the music despite being half empty.
  • O Pescadoro – lovely courtyard setting, superb food.
  • Salt and Pepper – more basic setting, but the food and service were great.

The prices were unbelievable – typically 75p to a pound for a beer, and a whole dinner for both of us, including drinks, for about GBP7.50!
One of the features of the beach at Baga is the steady stream of hawkers selling … well, just about everything. Sunglasses, sun-hats, sunglass cleaning, fruit, jewellery, various forms of tat as souvenirs, massages, and even ear-cleaning. Unlike in the north, most of them weren’t too pushy and actually understood the word “no”!

We did two day-trips from the beach. The first was to the Dudhsagar waterfalls on the eastern extreme of Goa. Wonderful view, though it was somewhat spoiled by the crowds of noisy tourists around the pool. The second was a half day dolphin watching around the estuary of the Mandovi river. Both made a nice change from the beach.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed the trip: an interesting tour, a great beach, fantastic food. Highly recommended.

Oh, more photos in the gallery!

India Holiday Photos, Part I

This is the first of several posts telling the story of our trip to India with some of the best of the photos we took along the way.

After a 10 hr overnight flight, we arrived in Sunny Goa on the morning of Sunday 11th, and transferred to our overnight stay at the hotel Fidalgo in Panaji, the capital city of the state of Goa.

Even getting that far in the journey was an interesting challenge – dealing with the money grabbing luggage porters at the airport who were pushing for 2 quid a case for taking them 100 yards to the bus! This wasn’t the first time I during the trip I wished I knew the Hindi for “Go Away and stop trying to cheat me”. To give you an idea, the going rate for luggage is INR20, or about 25p.

So we arrive at the hotel, and fortunately our rooms are ready early. They were … adequate. The aircon and plumbing worked, and there were no suspicious stains on the bed linen, but that’s about the limit of what there is to recommend it, I’m afraid. The pool was rather cloudy, getting a drink outside the restaurant all but impossible and the breakfast buffet was rather poor. On our wandering tour of the city we found a vegetarian restaurant that was mostly full of locals, and bravely wandered it. We took one look at the prices and ordered about half the menu! A quid for a large beer, 25p for a Naan bread, 50p for rice, and less than 2 quid for a veggie curry.

Goa is a former Porteguese colony that was the last part to gain Independence – I think British independence came in 1947, and the Goan independence in 1961. There are a few signs of the history still – including a 35% Roman Cathlolic population, and a few catholic churches and shrines dotted around. Of the rest of the population, about 60% are Hindu, and the last few mostly Moslem.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception looks somewhat out of place in all this tropical greenery!

After our exploration we retired back to the hotel for a few drinks and dinner – and their Indian restaurant was highly recommended. Yes, that’s right, Indian dishes twice in one day. “Native” Indian cookery is much less rich than the stuff that makes it to the west. While you can get the rich Tikka Masala, Korma, and Makhanwala dishes there, they still use yoghurt rather than cream so are still lighter. I think we had two chicken dishes (one kebab, one in “gravy”) two veg ones, rice and Naan. After that little load, we were ready for bed.

Monday morning dawned to a cloudless sky as we headed back to the airport for our flight to Delhi, and our first encounter with Indian bureaucracy at it’s finest. You need your tickets to get into the airport, then the bags are security screened (and you need to show your tickets again). Then you get to the check-in desk, and need passports even though it’s an internal flight. Same again at security, with the boarding card and luggage tag on your hand luggage all being stamped to show you’ve been checked. Then, at the gate, the usual boarding card check by the airline. Then again by the airport police and more stamps on the card. Then a quick check at the airplane to tell you which door to use (front or back), and a final look as you get on! At least double the number of checks I’m used to!

We had a connection to make at Mumbai, so were a little concerned at the 30 minute delay to our flight – and even more concerned when it dragged into a 90 minute delay. We arrived in Mumbai, with a lovely view of the shanty town along the airport perimeter fence, 10 minutes before our next flight was due to take off.

We’re not going to make this, are we?”, asks Yvonne – ever the optimist!

“Would passengers for flight <mumble> to Delhi please make their way to the exits first, please. So we fight our way to the door, down the stairs, onto a bus, and the 6 of us on the tour, plus one other guy, get whisked across the apron to the next plain, hurried up the steps, and they literally shut the doors behind us and start the engines. As we get on the plane I managed to ask “is there any chance our bags will make it?”

“All your bags are already on board, Sir”.

Wow! Major Kudos to Kingfisher Airlines there!

One of my memories of my previous time in India is the typical choice of airline meals: “veg or non-veg”. So, that’s two flights, two more curries!

We arrive, with luggage, at our hotel in Delhi for the night, have a quick bite to eat and a few drinks, and get up promptly the next day to start the tour proper. It was a great group – our guide, Arun, a driver who’s name escaped me, and his nephew along for the ride and handing out drinks (more on that later) represented the paid staff on the tour. As well as the two of us, there were Barry and Sharon (Sharon was about our age, Barry a little older), and Huw and Margaret from South Wales.

The tour of Delhi took in some of the major government buildings, the monument to Mahatma Ghandi, the Gate of India commemorating Indian soldiers who died in battle, and the Mughal fort in the city.

We also visited a Mosque, and had a rickshaw tour of the old city down the narrow streets. That was an experience in itself – despite the 80 degree heat, the guy pedalling the rickshaw didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat, and we got to see the old city up close and personal.

After that, we set off for the 160 mile, 4 hr road trip to Agra.

Yes, that’s right, about 40 miles an hour is a good planning speed for inter-city road travel in India. And that was on a divided highway almost all the way. What slows things down is a mixture of potholes, rickshaws, “Auto-rickshaws” (3 wheel scooters that seat 3-4 to Western sensibilities, 10 if it’s the local kids going to school), carts pulled by a variety of quadrupeds (horse, oxen, camel, elephant), cows wandering in the fast lane, and any of the above going the wrong way down the hard shoulder.

This trip took about 4 hours by road despite being only 200km (140 miles or so). I couldn’t close my eyes the whole way because there was so much to see. Some might claim it was pure terror, but with cows in the fast lane (asleep), camel drawn carts, and amazingly overloaded auto-rickshaws doing long distance routes, it was something to behold!
After our road trip to Agra, we checked in to our Hotel, and went to find dinner. In reception we meet Barry and Sharon who’ve been for a wander, and they say the’ve seen a nice looking restaurant just down the road, so we decide to venture out and check it out. Despite being hassled most of the way by the same rickshaw guy:

“No, we want to walk”

“But I go at walking pace”

“But it’s still not walking!”

“Very cheap ride, Sir” (is he talking about the service or insulting my wife??)

“No!”

“Sir, I take you good restaurant”

“No!”

“Sir, …”

“No!”

“S..”

“No!”

At that point, I wished I knew the Hindi for “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Yeah, that’s why everyone questions “why India?” But it wasn’t intimidating, just trying very hard to get us into the rickshaw ride. I was on the point of telling him “10 rupees to the end of the block” just to shut him up when he realised he would be better off selling ice cubs to polar bears and left us alone.

We found the recommended restaurant, ate another delicious Indian meal (good dhal, as I recall), and once again, slept soundly until the alarm call at 5 am.

At 5:45 we were in the minibus on our way to the Taj Mahal. Getting there is a classic Indian job creation scheme. It was a 15 minute bus ride from our hotel. But after 10 minutes, we have to leave our bus behind, because only electric vehicles are allowed up the road to the Taj Mahal.

We purr along the road, and in the distance we can see the east entrance to the Taj. And the bus stops.

Of course… we have to allow the hawkers to proffer various forms of tat. So the final 200 yards is walked in a slalom course between sellers of postcards, “genuine marble” (chalk) replicas of the mausoleum, books, memory cards, more postcards…. you get the picture.

We finally get in, walk though the main gate, and just stop.

We look at the Taj Mahal. We look at each other.

Neither of us has to say it; we’re both thinking the same thing. But we say it anyway: “we’re finally here”. It’s such a famous iconic sight, that when your own eyes finally settle on the same view, you just stop and drink in the moment.

Of course, I had to take the “classic” photo.  This was about my fifth attempt, lying on the floor in front of the reflecting pool with the camera held at an awkward angle to get the line of things down the centre of the pool to appear as one…

The entire site is symmetric: there’s a Mosque to the left, so an identical building was built to the right to keep the symmetry. There are just two breaks in that rule. The first is that there’s no garden behind the Taj. It was built on the riverbank so it would be seen against the sky, and secondly is inside the mausoleum where Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb is in the centre, and Shah Jahan’s is off to one side.

Actually, what you see aren’t the real tombs but monuments: the actual tombs are in the level below which is not open to the public.

Something you don’t realise until you get up close is the amount of detailed inlay work there is on the building. The whole building is covered with inlaid semi-precious stones.  To give you an idea, at today’s prices, it’s about GBP50 for a set of coasters made this way!

He must have loved that woman…..

And just to prove we really were there, with my thanks to the nice lady who took this picture for us!

After our early start, it’s back to the hotel for breakfast.

Our next stop is at the Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son. You can just see the Taj in the distance from the prison, and legend has it that he spent his final 7 years gazing at his wife’s tomb.

From there we drive to Fatehpur Sikri, the fort that at one time was the Mughal capital. 15 yeras after occupation, it was abandoned due to a lack of water (talk about bad planning!)

This was the longest day of the tour: after our 5am start, it’s about 8pm when we finally arrive in the Pink City of Jaipur, and have a good nights sleep before further explorations……..