India Honeymoon Trip
- Submitted by: Hans en Mirjam Damen
- Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005
We visited India on our Honeymoon from 30 November 1997 till 15 January 1998. We made a 7 week tour and visited Delhi, Rajasthan, Agra, Varanasi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Bombay. In this report we describe some of our experiences and things we've noticed during our trip.
Flying to India
We flew from Amsterdam to Delhi and back from Bombay on Air France via Paris. Although the months around Christmas are high season we paid less than US$ 650 for an open-jaw return ticket. We bought our ticket at BUDGETAIR, a dependable Dutch travel-agent with good deals at most of times. They are part of the NBBS-chain who have offices all over Holland. For other cheap tickets in Holland try D-REIZEN (they are practically all over Holland). In Amsterdam try Ad Latjes (he is also on Internet http://www.etn.nl/) or the Turkish agencies in the Albert Cuypstraat.
The Indian Embassy in Holland is at Buitenrustweg 2, 2517 KD The Hague (visa information 070-3635162). The consular office is open from 10.00 till 13.00 hours. The tourist visas they now provide are multiple-entry and valid for 6 months. They cost 65 guilders (about US$ 30). For one year multiple entry you pay 105 guilders.
Money and costs
Devaluation was heavy in India; during or stay the Rupee devaluated from around 37 to 40 rupees to the dollar. Prices hardly keep up with this rate, therefore if you are from a country with a strong currency, India might even be cheaper than you expect.
We travelled on train (1st class, 2nd class AC and Sleeper class) and busses (most times no class at all). We stayed in clean hotels, almost always with hot water and more than once with satellite TV and a complimentary newspaper in the morning. We paid between US$ 3 and 12 for a double. Hotels are more expensive in Delhi, Madras and Bombay). We tried to eat in good restaurants(expensive by Indian standards) and had enough beer in the evening (if available). We got by very comfortably on less than US$ 35 for both of us, including everything! Prices we mention are always including tax.
Like almost anywhere in Asia (and the world), tourists are overcharged in India. Two simple rules apply: ask prices before you order anything and bargain for everything. It will make your stay a lot cheaper.
Having been in India twice before, the weather wasn't exactly what we expected, at least in the North.
In the North we had daytime temperatures up to 20 degrees centigrade when the sun was shining. If not, temperatures stopped at 12-13 degrees. For us (from Holland) this was still T-shirt-weather, but the papers spoke of an actual coldwave. People were dying because night-time temperatures dropped to 8 degrees. We had a few rain showers and in Pushkar even a hailstorm.
In the South we experienced the last two days of the monsoon, but for the rest in was excellent weather with temperatures between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius.
Friendliness and annoyances
In general we think people in the South are a lot more friendly and relaxed than in the North. If we say in general it's just that. In the north we met very friendly people and were even invited to weddings. In the south not everybody was nice. The more relaxed you are yourself, the more friendly responses you'll get, in the north as well as in the south. If someone wants to take you to his shop (hotel, sister, wedding, festival, home) and you don't want to join him, be firm in keeping the direction you were going in. Try to talk to them about other things; even touts can be fun to chat to.
Our top two of annoyances:
1. Babe-bumping; grownup youths walking up against western females (more than once in a while also using their hands). After 10 days Mirjam found the answer; she turned around and smacked them. This is especially effective if their friends are watching; they lose a lot of face being hit by a woman.
2. Urinating on monuments. This is another thing that really annoyed us. Any slightly dark corner of virtually all the monuments, palaces and even temples you visit smells of ammoniac. OK, it's not always possible to find a public toilet in the streets (quiet difficult to be honest), but could you please stop pissing all over your national heritage?
Way to go in India. Although quite slow they are reasonably reliable and relatively safe. Travelling by train has the added advantage that you meet lots of people, whose first interest in you isn't purely commercial. As with everything in India, you get what you pay for and in this case even without haggling. Problem is not the trains (they are running) but getting the reservations. As most trains are full, if you want tickets on short notice you need to get into some kind of quota. There are heaps of quota (VIP, emergency, military, sport, handicapped etc.), the trick is to find the guy (or girl) who is handing them out. In big cities this is not a problem; there are special reservation bureau's that deal with foreigners. In smaller places it is often necessary to use your imagination and social skills. Basically the procedure is: buy your ticket first, find out that you are waitlisted, find the manager in charge of quotas, fill in a form and get your reservation next day or so. Shortcut: find the manager of the reservation office, present your business card, explain your problem, drink tea and have some smalltalk, pay for your ticket and reservation.
Like we said; you get what you pay for. Price difference between unreserved second class seat and first class air-conditioning sleeper is enormous. For long distances there are five classes to choose from; First class AC sleeper, Second class AC sleeper, first class sleeper, sleeper class and second class seater. Most times we opted for first class without AC or second class with AC. In both classes there are two berths above each other; the difference is the aircon and you get bedding in second class, but there is more space in first class and it's about 30 percent cheaper. On occasion we also travelled in sleeperclass. There you find three berths above each other and although it gets a bit cramped and full it's also a feasible option. In any class: lock your luggage with a steel wire to the train.
As we wanted to get some sleep we didn't travel on nightbusses. We heard from other travellers that they can be OK, but most of the times aren't. Same goes for day busses though. Once in a while you might get a good one, but the best material of private buscompanies is used during the night.
A bus in India is never too old and never full. Don't be amazed to find yourself in a bus with more than 200 passengers, not counting the ones hanging on the outside (we are definitely not exaggerating). Fortunately we didn't have any accidents; small donations to various temples may have helped. The good thing about the busses were conductors. Almost always friendly, helpful and we were never overcharged.
Both of us were quite tired the moment we started our holiday. In order to keep healthy and sane we started our trip very quiet and slept far into the day almost every day during the first week. We are not very good at avoiding the hottest part of the day (logically if you're up late), but most days we relaxed a couple of hours with a beer and potato-chips at teatime. Although we travelled quite a distance (about 6500 kilometres) we have the feeling that we took a leisurely pace.
We were extremely lucky as we didn't get ill once. Some simple tips: drink bottled water (unlike the last time we visited (1992) it's now available everywhere). Wash your hands before eating (or use disinfecting wet tissues; also good for cleaning feet after temple-visits). Never eat anything bought on the streets. Stay away from buffet-style meals. Eat in busy restaurants. It might be worth to eat in more expensive restaurants in the beginning of your stay, but on the other hand: who knows what happens in the kitchen. Donate small amounts of money to a Temple once in while and pray to the gods on a regular basis. Have Immodium ready anytime. Take it easy!!!
Cities and sights
We arrived at night (1 AM) 0n 30 November at Indira Gandhi Airport. Immigration and customs were fast and efficient. We were well warned of all dangers and nasty things taxi-drivers may do to you. We followed the advice and booked a taxi at the Delhi Police Prepaid Taxi booth. It's one of a lot of booths in a hall just behind customs, look around for the sign and don't believe what people in other booths are yelling at you. The ticket to our hotel cost Rs 250 and the licenceplate number was written down on the ticket. Once outside we walked 50 metres to the right and waited for our taxi. Of course there were loads of 'helpful' people who wanted to see our ticket, wanted to change our ticket, wanted to put us in another taxi etc. We just ignored them, waited for about 10 minutes until our taxi came down the ramp and left for our hotel.
The atmosphere in Delhi was spooky. The smog and the scarce public lighting gave everything a gloomy appearance. Breathing was a bit difficult because of the smog, but this improved two days later after a couple of nightly rain-showers.
We booked a room by mail from Holland at the YWCA International Guesthouse in Sansad Marg. We paid Rs 990 For a double (hot water, paper in the morning) including breakfast.
Our holiday had a good start on the first day: the government fell and we narrowly escaped a terrorist bombattack. Two bombs exploded in less than an hour after we visited the market. We were lucky as more than 60 people were killed and 200 were injured. So we found another reason to donate to temples on a regular base.
At night we ate at Kwality on Sansad Marg and Embassador at Connaught Place. Both are not cheap (by Indian standards of course), but they are both very good, expect to pay 250-300 rupees for a full meal including beers. For lunch we snacked at Nirula's (Indian Fast-Food at Connaught Place), bought delicious cakes at Wengers and had croissants at 'Croissants etcetera' (Outer circle of Connaught Place). Maybe a bit to western, but a good way to acclimatise.
The computer at Delhi station had been down for a couple of hours, so a substantial queue had formed at the tourist booking office. It took over two hours to get to the front, but the service was efficient. While you are waiting study the timetable that is being sold in the booths in the main hall. There is also time to fill in reservation forms. Also fill in some alternative forms (only the general information; not the train number) if the train you want is not available. There is a large tourist-quota available, so it should be possible to collect all the tickets you need. We got all the reservations we wanted, but we had to be a bit flexible in our schedule (day earlier, day later, other train, other class). The staff was very helpful.
Because of India's 50th anniversary there was a special exhibition in the national museum courtesy of the British Museum and British Airways. It was wonderful, but also the standard collection in the museum is well worth a visit.
On Tuesday 02 December we took the Mandor Express to Jodhpur. It left from the Old Delhi Railway Station at 2100 hours and cost Rs 868 in 2nd class AC. It's wonderful how the railway-reservations work out. You'll find your name, sex, age and status (FT; foreign tourist) on a form on the platform and on the train.
Jodphur was fresh and crisp compared to Delhi. After arrival at the station we went by autorikshaw to the Madho Nivas hotel. It's a friendly and clean place about 30 minutes walking from the city centre. We paid Rs 500 for a large clean double. They have cheaper (Rs 300) and more expensive rooms (Rs 800 with aircon).
It seems that all Rajasthani towns heave a red fort and so does Jodphur. It towers on a hill above the city. You can get there by car, but it's more fun to walk through the small streets leading up to it. It's a bit confusing, but just walk in the general direction and loads of kids will point you in the right direction. Entry to the fort is Rs 50 and you pay Rs 50 for a camera. Once you've reached it, it's even more impressive than from down below. A band is welcoming you at the entrance of the palace and in one of the rooms inside there are artists painting miniatures; all very scenic.
Back down, the market around the belltower is a friendly spot to relax, sip a coke and watch the people.
We had snacks (pakora and papad) at the rooftop café of the Govind hotel. Walking back to our hotel we stumbled on a wedding procession. The groom was taken by horse to the house of his wife-to-be. He is accompanied by all his relatives and an extremely loud and disharmonious brassband. On both sides of the procession walk boys with gaslamps. This was the first of lots of weddings we would come across during our honeymoon. Fun to see so many weddings just after you got married yourself. We were walking in the same direction; the man started talking to Hans, the women to Mirjam and inevitably we were invited to join the party. Quite an experience; we got garlands, drinks and sweets and were not allowed to leave until we had eaten.
The next day we went to Osiman by bus. En route we drove by fields full of red peppers. Osiman is a small village with a relaxed atmosphere. There is a nice Jain-temple on a hill and scattered around the village are the remains of much more temples. In one of the temples we met an American lady who had studied Astrology for over three years . She was still studying, but had an uncanny accuracy in guessing (knowing?) our backgrounds after she heard our birthdays. She also explained the reason for all the marriages we saw. As Jupiter and Venus were both travelling the skies in a positive direction, it was an auspicious time for weddings.
For a very peppery snack try the bakery near the corner of Nal Sarak and High Court Road. On the opposite side of the road you can buy sweets to cool off again.
It's half an hour from Pushkar to Ajmer by bus. We dropped our luggage at the depot in the station. Ignored the 26 rikshaw drivers and walked into town. We walked to the Darggah, the tomb of an old Sufi Saint. The whole atmosphere at the tomb and the surrounding mosques was a bit unfriendly. We weren't allowed to sit anywhere (the locals sat everywhere) and beggars were constantly harassing us. The narrow streets around the tomb are fun to walk through though. We continued to the remains of the Adhia-mosque. A much friendlier place and we spent about an hour in the sun doing nothing, only once in a while disturbed by a request to pose with day-trippers and transvestites. We had some trouble finding the Jain-temple, but fortunately we did. Not very impressive from the outside, it's a jewel within. Inside you find a gigantic gold model depicting the central mountain of Jainism and all the Jain-temples in India. About 1600 kilograms of gold were used to build the model. Non-Jains are allowed to walk on the second floor of the temple and view the interior from there. We got a tour by one of the painters who is restoring the murals in the temple. He told us that the temple is private property of a diamond-trader, who also owns 25% of the city of Ajmer. A place not to be missed!
In the afternoon we took the Shatabdi-express to Jaipur. At Rs 240 it's a bit expensive, but it is air-conditioned, takes only two hours and high tea is served en route.
In Jaipur we stayed at the Aangan Travellers Home in a double (hot water and TV) for Rs 350. The hotel has a very small restaurant in front, that does good breakfasts.
Jaipur has a strong regional function, so there are lots of shops and other businesses. In spite of all the activity, Jaipur still gave us a friendly impression. During our stay we saw some demonstrations, but they were calm and peaceful. At least they were at the time we saw them. Two days later we read in the papers that police had fired at the demonstrators, killed six of them and wounded a lot more.
Cameras are a cashcow in Jaipur. Entree to the Palace for foreigners is Rs 70, a camera is Rs 50 extra. Same with the Hawa Mahal (palace of the winds); entree only two rupees, a camera is 35. We were more than a week in India, so prices at this level started to feel far to high. On the other hand; they reason that if you can afford to come to India, you can also afford one or two dollars camera-charge. Not counting the utmost shoestring-travellers they are probably right.
As we wanted to go to the cinema, we had an early dinner at Natraj; good food, but too expensive. Yes, like all westerners we went to the one cinema not to be missed; Raj Mandir. An enormous queue had formed in front of the ticket-windows, but luckily we spotted some fellow countryman to the front of the queue and bribed them with a cola. This was better than the first time I was in India (1984). At that time we had to bribe the management of the theatre to get tickets. So we got our tickets real fast and had time to admire the wonderful hall of the cinema with it's fifties colours and Hollywood kitsch decor. The movie we saw was 'DIL TO PAGAL HI'. Completely by chance we had stumbled on the biggest hit of the year. We now knew what music we had heard in all the buses during our first one and a half week in India. During the rest of our holiday we had instant success once we started singing along with the tapes in the busses, restaurants, stations etc..
From Jaipur we made a daytrip to Amber. The bus leaves from opposite the Jawa Mahal and costs Rs 5. Entree to the palace is Rs 4 with an additional Rs 50 for the camera. It's a great palace, the inside is like a maze with narrow passageways, chambers and stairs were it is possible to get completely lost. We climbed to the top of the maharaja's palace and found ourselves a 'personal' balcony on top of one of towers. The sun was shining, the temperature was comforting table and we spent a great time relaxing and watching the great view and the outside world. We even slept for some time. (By the way: we slept in the maharaja's palace!). At night we had a good meal at the Copper Chimney.
The bustrip from Jaipur to Agra takes about 5 hours. Private busses leave 100 metres from the Aangan hotel. We paid 80 rupees, for a ticket bought at maharaja travels. Reserve a seat one day in advance and persevere in getting your assigned seat (the seats in the middle are better than in the back).
Major Bakthi died last year, and as one of the consequences his guesthouse is no longer in operation. We walked 300 metres further down the road and stayed at the Basera-hotel,19 ajmer road (0562-363641) for 325 rupees. The room was good value (hot water, Sat-TV), but if you want your laundry clean and dry, take it somewhere else. Also find your own taxi's (we will come back to that later). In Agra we found ourselves a personal rikshaw-driver: Papud. First we paid every trip, later by the day. We paid around Rs 10 for each trip.
The Taj Mahal is unbelievable. Normally once you get to any object you know from pictures, it's always less impressive. On photographs the Eiffel Tower is golden, in reality it's rusty, those kind of things. The Taj is different. It's possible to spend hours looking at it. The colour changes all the time and although there are loads of tourists it's surrounded by a quiet atmosphere. We visited the Taj twice, once just after our arrival at sunset on Friday (free entry on that day). As there wasn't a sunset, but only fog, there weren't many visitors. The Taj rose up from the fog, looking like a castle straight from heaven. A very special experience. On Sunday we visited the Taj in daylight. We had to stand in line this time, with about 500 people in front of us waiting for the security-check. It took about half an hour. Not so bad though, as we left some hours later there were more than 2000 people waiting.
The red Fort cannot be missed, but try to visit Dayal Bagh also. It's a new Hindu temple that is being built in the North of the city. They started building it in 1904. I visited it 15 years ago and compared with that time I didn't have the impression that much progress is made. Visit the marble-workshops next door; there will be someone to show you around for some bakshees.
We had excellent south-Indian thali's at Dasaprakesh in the Meher theatre complex on Gwalior road. Kwality on Taj road was equally good. Buy some cakes and pastry to take away and eat them on the train.
We booked a train to Varanasi. It departs from the station of Tundla some 12 kilometres from Agra. We asked the hotel for a taxi and were taken to a small booking office a couple of blocks away. There we couldn't book a taxi (later, later) but some guy started talking about how much money you could earn by importing gemstones in your homecountry. Most people will recognise the story and we also didn't fall for it. It ended very quickly when I suggested that I would take the stones to Europe and that some weeks later a friend who would come to India would bring the proceeds to him. This was not the scenario the con man had in mind. So he left very quickly. We still had no taxi, and we got the feeling that they tried to put us in a tight timeframe in order to get a ridiculous price for the ride. So we just left, collected our bags at the hotel, took a tuk-tuk to the busstation and took a bus to Tundla.
The train was only two hours late and we killed the time on the platform drinking chai from disposable clay cups. Lots of tea, because it was pretty cold (even by Dutch standards). The ticket cost Rs 816 in 2-tier AC. Next day we arrived in Mughal Sarai Junction, a station some 10 kilometres from Varanasi and took a minibus into town.
Varanasi; that magical holy city! Take a boatride in the morning and see the worshippers take their bath in the Ganges. Well, forget it; not in December! 8 degrees Celsius is definitely too cold for the average Indian. Instead of bathing the Indians were dressed in blankets and bonnets and shivering around little fires in the middle of the streets. The cremations at the burning ghats were business as usual. Death is a more natural part of life in India than it is in the west; it's still striking to see dead bodies being transported in a rikshaw or on top of a taxi. By the way and as a guideline; rikshaws are Rs 10 from the centre to the railway station.
It's fun to walk in the very narrow streets in the oldest part of town. People built there houses so close together to be able to help each other in case of an attack. The doorways are very low, so that an attacker had to bend down if he wanted to enter the house. This left him very vulnerable.
We stayed at the hotel Barahdari in a very clean double with hot water, ayurvedic soap and fluffy towels (yes) for Rs 385. An amazing variety of food and huge portions are available in the Temple restaurant in Dashaswamedh Road. Everything on the menu was available at very reasonable prices.
We made a day-trip to Sarnath to visit the Buddhist ruins about 10 kilometres from Varanasi. Board a bus for Rs 4 in front of the Varanasi Railway station; it takes about 45 minutes. Sarnath is very peacefull and it's pleasant to spent a couple of hours there. The restoration of the ruins hasn't always been performed brilliantly, but the green surroundings make up for it. The western girl meditating amidst the ruins attracted a lot of attention of the locals. It's not very obvious how the museum selects items for its collection. The ruined statues that are inside look much the same as the statues lying in the dirt outside.
On 17 December at 1800 we took the Ganga Kaveri express to Chennai. 40 hours in the train cost us Rs 1684 in 2-tier AC. The breakfast (toast omelette) isn't bad, but take food to nibble. Also buy some books, 40 hours is long.
Madras / Chennai
Chennai (the locals still call it Madras) is 2140 kilometres away from and 25 degrees warmer than Varanasi. We walked from the main railway station through a drizzle looking for a hotel in the vicinity of Egmore station. After two days in the train we opted for a bit of luxury and stayed at the New Victoria hotel in Kennet Lane opposite the Egmore railway station for Rs 1400. There is also a lot of choice in the budget category round this neighbourhood.
We took a bath and the rest of the day we walked at random around the city, collected mail at American Express and had an excellent lunch at Aravanaas restaurant in the Shanti theatre complex. Great dosa's and other vegetarian goodies.
At night the monsoon unleashed its final showers. The street in front of the hotel practically changed into a river so we stayed inside and had an excellent meal (one of our best in India) in the restaurant of the hotel. Great Marco Polo Lager on draught too!
After an equally good breakfast we took a auto-rikshaw to the (submerged) busstation. Jumping from dry spot to dry spot and guided by a five-year old entrepreneur we find the bus to Mahabalipuram.
The road to Mahabalipuram follows the coast. It's a nice one hour trip from Chennai. The village is small and friendly. In the streets we see the first chalk-paintings in front of houses. They are graphic designs reminding you of Esscher and are put there to welcome guests. We feel at home right away.
We stayed at Vinayak cottages in a simple room (but with hot water) for Rs 200. At five in the morning we were woken up by a terrible noise. It sounded as if the local kids had gotten hold of the village soundsystem and were having a go at it before their parents found out. Quick reconnaissance proved that the noise was not coming from the rooms next to us, nor from anywhere else around the hotel. A couple of hours later we found out that we were extremely lucky. The din came from the temple opposite our hotel. This was the special annual festival to guarantee the safe return of the most important temple statue that would go on a journey to Karnataka. Not to worry; the noise would only last another two days, and it would only last from 2 till 4 AM next night. Another experience, another story to tell.
It was Ayappa-time in the south. Ayappa devotees are male, dressed in black and they travel around the countryside in fully packed white cars. The cars are adorned with religious symbols and pictures of saints combined with orange flowers. Ayappa-devotees are running while visiting temples and they yell 'Ayappa' lots of times. They only stop to have their pictures taken. As they are on a holy mission, they don't seem to take the highway code to serious. Every second day there are reports in the papers about ayappa-cars being involved in accidents. Indian Highway Code: if it's bigger it has right of way.
In the evening we ate at the Golden Palate in the Mamalla Bhavan Annexe. They have an outdoor eating area (and aircon inside), nice vegetarian food and very cold Kingfisher. The seaside restaurants are goods for a beer, but for food had to many flies to our liking.
We took a bus to Pondicherry. It doesn't run to its schedule so just turn up and wait. We did for two hours.
Pondicherry didn't do much to us. It's a town. The architecture still shows that it used to be French. It has a post-office. palace hotel (opposite Amala lodge) rented us a room for Rs 400 and then turned off the Air-conditioning and demanded extra money. Fortunately the only (relatively) bad experience we had we hotels in India. We lectured the owner on the subject of doing honest business. It probably doesn't help, but it makes you feel better and we scared of some other tourists in the process.
We went for dinner in the Rendez-Vous and made the mistake to order French Food. On the bill we found the most hypocrite name for beer we have ever come across: 'liquid bread'.
Ok, not the most brilliant of days, so we decided to leave the next day for Thanjavur.
After one auto-rikshaw, three busses and four busstations we arrived after five hours in Thanjavur. This was the method: we took a bus to Cuddalore for Rs 4. From there we went to Chidambaran for Rs 15 and then on to Thanjavur for Rs 20,5.
In Thanjavur we stayed at the Hotel Valli for a reasonable Rs 265 (hot water in the mornings). Definitely don't eat your breakfast here; it was lousy. We had dinner in the hotel Parisutham. Bland Indian food aimed at westerners; a pity.
The palace certainly has had its best times, but it has a special charm. The small museum is touching in its simplicity and the library is really interesting. The library has a small exhibition of palm-leave books and an interesting collection of prints and pictures. There is an interesting print of humans being compared to animals. Ganesh could have done much worse.
The Brihadishwara temple is very impressive. It's still in use, but was very quiet when we visited. We were there at the height of the day (mad dogs and dutchmen!) and the stones were scalding hot, so the Indians probably visit it on a more sensible hour. You can also visit the inside of the temple. While you cannot visit the inner sanctum, everything that is happening there can be viewed from the entrance. Don't forget to take (buy) the blessings of the resident elephant.
The bus to Trichy takes 1,5 hours and costs Rs 10.
Tiruchirappalli / Trichy
The Aanand hotel is situated next to the bus station and is good. A double room (hot water, Sat TV and a paper) cost Rs 265. We celebrated Christmas Eve with beer bought opposite the hotel and a very nice and cheap meal in the garden in front of the hotel. It's a pity you cannot take the beer to the vegetarian restaurant, but for the rest the evening was perfect. The restaurant inside does cheap and filling Indian breakfasts; good idli!
On Christmas morning we visited the Srirangam temple. It's an enormous complex with seven walls. As a non-Hindu you are not allowed inside the four inner walls, but there is still enough to see. You cannot miss the booth were they sell tickets to the roof of the temple. Forget about a guide, buy the guidebook at the booth; it is very informative. We were lucky the temple was still standing there, as Hindu-extremists had threatened to blow it up. There were some police about, but security wasn't very tight.
The Rock fort temple isn't much of a temple, but its location on top of (yes) the rock can't be beaten. You have to climb the 437 (they are numbered) steps on your bare feet. Our friends the Ayappa's did it running. You are now allowed into the small temple at the top. Down below is Chinna Bazaar. Buy your (silk) saris and salwar kameezes here; we didn't find them cheaper anywhere else in India.
Except for obligatory 'Seasons greetings' in hotels. Not much reminded us of X-mas. St Johns church was different as it had a bigger than life X-mas-group in its courtyard.
After an amazingly fast (3 hours) and amazingly bumpy busride (Rs 36) we arrived in Madurai. There are a lot of hotels on west perunal maistry street near the bus station. We took a look at most of them and chose the Prem Nivas; Rs 300 for a double with hot water, TV and 24 hours checkout. The restaurant does enormous 'rocket' paper massala dosa's.
Another thing that is enormous is the amount of people that visit the Sri Meenakshi temple. It looks just the way an Indian temple should look with its white and red walls and huge goparams (towers combined with doors). It's a pity that non-Hindu's are not allowed in a large part of the temple, but there is still enough left to see. It's special to see people bombarding a statue of Kali with butterballs. Women, not disturbed by thousands of people around them perform little ceremonies in front of this statue. It's supposed to help in case of family-problems. The temple museum in the 1000-pillar hall is in bit of a mess, but there is enough to see to warrant a visit.
The Gandhi museum gives a good patriotic version of India's history. More cute and more fun to visit is the government museum next door. You cannot miss it as it has a 7 metre high dinosaur guarding it. Inside it has an amazing variety of valuable artefacts and junk. On the way to the Gandhi museum we visited the annual domestic fair. We left with all kinds of coupons for all kinds of discounts on various goods as food, tractors and electric appliances.
The Tirumalai palace is under restoration; it will look much better once it's finished.
Booking a train to Varkala took some time. There was a direct train, but also a long waiting-list. We bought tickets, applied for an emergency-quotum (only sleeper-class was available) in the Regional Commissioners Office at the other side of the tracks and got our reservations the next day. Top bunks in Sleeper class are not for the claustrophobic! The ticket cost only Rs 58.
We arrived early in the morning of 28 December in Varkala and took a auto-rikshaw to the beach and booked a room in the Varkala Marine Palace for Rs 300. A bit steep for a room with cold water and fan, but logical given the fact that most hotels were full between X-mas and New Year. We spent two days lazing, reading and eating fish and fruit-salad. Varkala is a 'dry' village, with only one alcohol-shop near the railway station. Restaurants are not allowed to serve it, so they disguise it in cocktails.
We took the early morning train to Kollam. It arrives at about nine o'clock so there is enough time before the boat leaves at 10.30. The ATDC charges Rs 150 or Rs 100 for students. As with busses a boat is never full. The blockage in the canal has been removed, so you travel now straight from Kollam to Allappuzha. Seven hours is long enough if you are packed solid. Bring some food and sunblock.
Having arrived in Allappuzha we had to fight a bit to get into the bus to Ernakulam. It takes 2 hours to get there.
The Grand hotel is in the top category but good value at Rs 690 for a spacious carpeted room with aircon, roomservice and everything else you might need. It is amazing to find a hotelroom in India with all appliances in working order.
The last day of the year we visited Cochi and had a great day. The short boat trip to the Peninsula is fun and Cochi has a very relaxed feel over it. Just wander around and soak up the colonial atmosphere. The fishermen with there Chinese fishing nets don't seem to bother if they only catch one small fish each time the raise their nets. St Francis church is cool and peacefull. Even the flowers on the Dutch cemetery are a nice sight, allthough it is a pity that they are basically weeds, totally overgrowing the graves. The flowers smell good and this attracts lots of butterflies. Malabar House is a heritage-hotel with a colonial feel about it. Excellent for a lemon-soda or a snack on its veranda and it might have the finest bathroom in India.
We wander on through Cochi and spent some time in the garden of the Cathedral were men are preparing a float for the Maria-procession that evening. We walk on to the Dutch palace (steamy wallpaintings in the sultans sleeping quarters) and the Jewish quarter. No prizes for guessing the cliché name of one of the lawyers who is living there (Cohen). The Synagogue is another tranquil place. The caretaker is eager to show you around and explain what is what. Via a mess outside the Cathedral we walk back to the ferry and take the boat to Ernakulam. We are pretty tired, miss all the new years eve parties and are in bed well before 2400 hours. This doesn't mean we miss the New Year; fire-works wake us up at the right moment.
We visited the Kathakali performance at the See India Foundation. The dancing is fun and just short enough not to get boring. After the performance Devan, the owner of the business takes his time to 'explain' what is happening. It is amazing how much philosophical nonsense a human being can relate in under half an hour. Still good amusement though.
We took the train to Bangalore on the first of January 1998. Getting a reservation took some visits to the reservations' office and the office of the regional manager next door. We got VIP-quota in first class. The ticket costs Rs 566.
We arrived around six o'clock in Bangalore and as we walked out of the station we ran into the bus to Mysore. It takes three hours to get there. We stayed at the VCDS on Sri Harsha road in a double with TV, hot water and balcony for Rs 350. We ate a good thali lunch in the Akshaya Vegetarian Restaurant in the Dasaprakesh hotel (be a daredevil and have an ice-cream). At night we ate in the garden of the Parkhotel (drink, dine, dwell). Very relaxed, nice music, an equal mix of westerners and Indians and good food; try the garlic naan.
Public servants in Karnataka were on strike in order to get a 35% payrise. Therefor the Mysore palace was closed. So we took a bus to Somnathpur to visit the Hoysalla temple. We almost had it exclusively for ourselves as there weren't many visitors. It is beautifully sculptured and has a 'fractal' feel over it. Next day we walked up Chamundi hill. The enourmous Nandi-bull half way up the hill looks so friendly the Disney might have put it there. On top of the hill are a lot of shops and a simple temple. Who would like to climb a hill without a temple, just for the view?
The strike had ended with a compromise (the civil servants got 28% more salary) so on our last morning in Mysore we could visit the palace. It is a unique, most amazing place. Once you are inside it looks like a gigantic bright coloured merry-go-round. They put in all styles as long as the style was colourful enough. If you arrive during a strike in Mysore, sit it out, because this is a sight not to be missed!
It's a bit difficult to get information about busses to Sravanabelagola. We went to the busstation and took a bus to channarayapatna and wait there for a bus to sravana etc.. It took us about 2 hours.
Sravanabelagola is a nice little organised Jain-enclave. Almost all accommodation is rented out by the local 'managing committee'. Although this is a monopoly, this is a good thing because the rooms in the 20-something guest houses are clean and cheap. We stayed at their top-guest house (fan, hot water and real mattresses) for Rs 135.
Remove your shoes for the climb to the only attraction of the Village: the Naked Man temple. From outside you can only see his upper body, but once you've entered you get the Full Monty. Sravanabelagola is worth the detour.
Basic vegetarian restaurants at the foot of the hill provide you with your massala dosa or veg thali at night.
Belur and Halebid
At 7.30 we took the eight o'clock bus to Belur, which took about two hours. We booked into the Mayura Velapuri hotel in the new wing (double Rs 200, hot water).
As in Somnathpur there is a Hoysala temple in both Belur and Halebid. All three of them are well worth a visit. It takes quite some bus-travel, but don't miss out of the other two after you visited the first one. Intricately carved they all deserve a couple of hours.
The busstand in Belur is chaotic and there isn't much English spoken. The bus from Belur to Halebid takes half an hour. If you want to go further afield it's difficult to get information.
It's a long way and a long day to Hospet. Skip breakfast in the hotel (it was lousy) and turn up early at the busstand. On 98 January we went to Hospet with changes of bus in Shimoga and Davangere. In total it took us about 9 hours.
Hospet and Hampi
The hotels in the LP guide were dirty (Vishwa) or full so we had to find the brand-new superclean Karthik Hotel. Its location is Pampa villa, lV ward D no 252 ands 253; follow the signs from Station road. Excellent value at Rs 300 (double, sat TV, bath).
Early next morning we took a auto-rikshaw to Hampi for Rs 60. Hampi has great ruins and certainly deserves a day of sight-seeing. Just wander around and discover amazing remains of old temples and palaces. (We're beginning to sound as a tourist brochure, but is was really good). Take lots of water if it's hot.