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March 27th 2013
Published: March 27th 2013
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So next stop after The Andamans are parts of South India, before heading north for a few weeks, and then going to Japan at the end of this month. These are, in fact, “filler” weeks as we were going to do Darjeeling & Sikkim till we discovered that it might be too cold to visit this time of year, and we didn’t wish to carry our warm gear with us as well through the places we have visited since the girls left.

We get a Jet Airways flight from Port Blair to Chennai after a slight hic cup when we realise we don’t have the copy of the e-ticket for C. Thankfully there is a Jet counter at the entrance to the airport & we get a copy free (as she is sooooo nice) - they decide not to charge her the Rs 100 usual fee for dorks who forget such things.

The flight is uneventful other than the surprise lunch on board and the nerdy kid in front of us who couldn’t just talk to his parents but had to shout at an annoying pitch every five seconds - M could quite easily have strangled him. Ipods to the rescue and the squirt lived to see another day.

Chennai

We arrive at the new Chennai airport ½ hour (2.35pm) early which is great and then luckily we bump into a Czech guy (Michael from Prague) who’s also looking to take a pre-paid cab to Mamallapuram. So we share the cost (Rs 1280) and the cab gets us there in an hour and a half. We therefore, avoid the hassle of getting a Metro to the centre, finding the Bus station and then taking a 2 hour bus ride to get there. We also avoid the need to stay in Chennai which isn’t our bag. We were here 5 years ago and it didn’t do it for us then. However, from the air Chennai looks great with the houses all brightly coloured in yellows, pinks, purples, blues etc amid palm tree lined streets.

We’ll be back to catch the train to Ooty in a few days.

Mamallapuram – The World Heritage Site for the Pallava Dynasty carvings & Temple.

The ride to Mamallapuram is slow going for a while then the freeway opens up and we travel along the sea shore for miles. There are a host of tourist places here now and large backwater lakes, a few filled with Indian Pink Flamingos – smaller and less pink than the ones in Africa.

We get to the town in bright daylight. We had rung ahead and booked a room at a Hotel (we thought was a family Guest House) called Le Vie en Rose. Odd name for a place here – but then so are most of the places in what the LP guide rightly refers to as “Backpackistan”! The hotel is fine – only Rs 600 per night – wow. It’s also near the Bus stop and at the center of the action here.

One thing we discover early on is that M’s Hindi isn't going to be much help – most locals only speak Tamil and some English. So English it is - as his Tamil is pretty non-existent despite the fact he spent 3 years in University at Chennai.One point of note in this part of the world/India is that names of people seem to go on forever - see the signs we have taken pictures of.

The place really is a backpacker’s delight and pretty chilled. The main drag off the town’s High Street (called East Raja Street) is Othadavai Street where most of the eateries and shops are. It leads to the sea where life seems largely the same as it was for the local fishing community many years ago bar the arrivals of the tourists and everything that brings. The fishermen are busy getting on with life, fixing nets, preparing nets for fishing at sunset, fixing boats, playing cards till fishing time etc. All the while many cows, some dogs and quite a few foreigners walk around them.

The sea front cafes and restaurants are all painted in bright colours as are the fishing boats all along the shore front. The sea looks clean but is more for surfers than swimmers. At the shore, resplendent at sea level is one of the famous temples – called quite originally – Shore Temple!! There’s a movie or TV crew working nearby.

Looking around we can only imagine that this is akin to Hampi, which many travellers have said is really lovely and laid back with the usual blend of Indian mysticism, history and picturesque landscape. We do regret the fact that we missed the chance to go there when we were in Goa (we didn't realise we were so close to it; about 180 kms). However, we can always add this into our next trip to India, together with Dharamsala & Manali which we discounted in favour of Leh, Srinagar & Sikkim when we get back in June.

We find a really small book shop and discover that they are selling the new LP India Guide – second hand for Rs 500 – bargain and we are back in business.

After all the seafood in the Andamans we are ready for some good south Indian food – Dosa’s, Idli, Uttappam etc. But amazingly most places are labelled North Indian or tourist joints – we have to search out the two places that do what we want - Anand Bhavan & Mamalla Bhavan. Mamalla is the better of the two and we eat there quite often – awesome breakfasts and dinners and very cheap. It’s a bit of a local institution with staff that seem to have been there since the day it opened – the guy who serves us is really sweet and attentive. We also take Michael (the Czech version!) there one breakfast - as he’s a keen foodie with an ambition to open his own eatery back in Prague - so he can experience Pongal (a sort of rice, lentil and spice mix that’s yummier than it sounds!) and all the other delights and their excellent Madras coffee.

We do try seafood one night at Ponn Water Face – Kalamari & seafood noodles – ok, but not as good as the Andamans. We only went there really for the “cheap” beer (at Rs 180 it isn’t cheap at all but there’s no bottle shop nearby so needs must!).

Internet here is great value at Rs 30 per hour and really fast so we catch up with family & friends and spend a happy two hours uploading our last three blogs.

We have come here to see the temples and rock carvings from the 7th Century, during the Pallava Dynasty, which now have UNESCO World Heritage status. The 2 separate sites have to be paid for – The Five Rathas and the Shore Temple. In all honesty, unless you want to get close to the carvings to see them in detail, it’s not worth paying. You can see the Five Rathas quite easily from the road and the Shore Temple from the beach. M is definitely not convinced that the sites warrant World Heritage status and in terms of value for money for the RS 250 fee – it only warrants about Rs 50 compared to other World Heritage sites we have seen in India.

At one of the Temples in town (Talasayana Perumal) there is a story that the Shore Temple was built on the spot where Vishnu appeared to a saint who was trying to bail out the sea (!) to present a gift to Vishnu. The Five Rathas (5 temples and a life sized elephant and lion) are apparently carved out of one huge piece of stone and may or may not be dedicated to the five Pandavas and their wife – the heroes of Mahabharata – depending on whether you believe LP or the Archaeological Survey of India respectively!

The rest of the sites are free, and to our eyes, more impressive. Especially the bas relief carvings of Arjuna’s Penance and Trimurthi’s Cave. These are all found in one long stretch of grounds along the edge of town which makes a popular local picnic site (judging by the litter left around!). A local favourite is called Ganesh’s Butter Ball (haven’t a clue why?), a large boulder that sits on a slope precariously which is good for photo’s. We do most of the sites early in the morning and late afternoon when it’s more comfortable as it’s incredibly hot and humid here; we think only Palenque in Mexico was more sweat inducing.

The stone carving craft is still a major feature of the town, with sculpture workshops everywhere and either the gentle noise of stone chiselling or the whirring din of stone cutting machines. There are some pretty impressive pieces which we suspect are bound for businesses as they’d be too large for a home.

Weekends see a lot of local day-trippers on buses, coaches and in their own cars and all the sites are packed with folk (generally all dressed up and the women with garlands in their hair) and the restaurants are full.

We meet up with Michael again one evening for a beer (he’s not sure whether to go to Hampi & other parts of India or go back to The Andamans which he loves). We hope to meet up with him when we head to Prague in future. The next day we take the local Express bus to Chennai, where we are to catch our overnight train to Metupalaiyam and (hopefully) the early morning connection with the Mountain Railway steam train up to Ooty. We book our bags into storage at Chennai station for convenience (Rs 45 for 3 bags for one day) but we aren’t inspired to go out and about. M lived here for 3 years as a student and we visited in our last trip and really it’s just a big smelly city. So instead we find a chair in the waiting room upstairs (which is quite big and airy) near a power point and play games and catch up on planning and the blog.

Supper is some awesome kebab rolls from Tibby Frankies in the station – chicken tikka and paneer with mint sauce are best. Then all aboard for overnight the trip to Ooty.

Travellers Tips:

There are only 3 direct buses from Mamallapuram to Central Chennai a day. Rs 39. Then get a local bus from the bus station to Central Railway station Rs 7.

Udagamandalam…….. (Simply known as Ooty)

So from the sweltering heat of Mamallapuram, we are sitting in our room in Ooty writing this wrapped in blankets!! It’s cool here.

The overnight journey went well and in fact we arrive into Metupalaiyam 30 mins early; great as it means time for a couple of good hot coffees and lots of photos of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway narrow gauge steam train and steam engines before we set off. Aditya has managed to get us 1st class tickets, one on each side of the carriage so we get the best photo opps of the views all the way up. (Thanks Aditya). The journey takes 5 hours with plenty of stops along the way for refreshments etc. We see quite fresh elephant poo by the tracks but no signs of the real thing. There are also plenty of birds and butterflies and the vegetation changes from palm trees to tea plantations to eucalyptus trees as we go higher.

On some of the steeper sections, the steam train engine really struggles and shudders and on arrival at Coonor after 3 hours, the steam engine is replaced with a diesel engine for the final 2 hour leg to Ooty. More smooth but less atmospheric. (Unfortunately we also change travelling companions at Coonor; some eejit Brits and their guide join us and we soooo want to tell them where to get off for being completely obnoxious & ignorant twits!! The Indian guide wasn’t much better, giving incorrect information. M has to bite his lips, a lot; we guess they deserve each other.)

Anyhow, the train journey is a great experience and at only R’s 350 for both of us, an absolute bargain.

We have planned to stay for one night in Ooty, with the option for more if we like it. As we pull in we decide we are not too sure. However, the weather changes and it starts to rain and gets really cooler. This gets us to decide that 1 night will definitely be enough (a view that is confirmed later when we wander into town for some lunch) as it seems a very non-descript place despite the colourful houses. An impression not helped by the heavily over cast sky.

We are staying at Hotel Sweekar, overlooking the town and racecourse which is right slap bang in the middle of the town. It’s an English style bungalow and ok for the money (R’s 550) but a bit basic. Thankfully the owner is a nice chap who happily gives us extra blankets as we are feeling the cold.

We head back into town for a mooch and some lunch but despite the recommendations in LP it’s really hard to find anywhere that looks interesting and we have to walk for ages. It’s also raining – cold rain! Waterproof jackets required. In the end we head for a bar for a couple of beers then a local halal restaurant for some chicken kebabs. Not bad.

On the way back we call into the bus station and pre book our coach seats for the trip to Mysore in the morning. We are able to choose our seats which is great – first time this trip we are doing a long (5 hours) bus journey in India. More surprising is that M gets a discount for being of mature age!!

We dine at Kebab Corner after a few cheap beers at a local bar. The food and service are really good and reasonably priced.

We are up early and have a lovely light breakfast at the Guest House and get to the bus stop to get to Mysore. Today the sun is shining and Ooty looks very different and more interesting. We reflect on this and realise perhaps we were perhaps being influenced by the weather and judging Ooty by our experiences elsewhere rather than accepting what it has to offer us as visitors. Ooty has a lot of amenities and areas of interest close by. Nature trails and trekking are big draws aswell as the local national parks.

It’s spread over a vast area. The pockets of housing are colourful and have a charm all of their own. The Nilgiri Tea plantations give a lovely colour and texture to the landscape; the land is fertile and green with fruit and vegetables growing. Other than Tea, the big draw here is chocolate – including chocolate tea (yuck says M). The chocolates (including a Jain version) are home made with a variety of fillings – nuts, raisins, dates etc – and sold in just about all general shops along the streets.

Being in South India, all the signs are in Telegu, as are the posters for films recently released and as it’s election time – wall to wall posters of politicians trying to grab your vote!

As we drive from away from Ooty we feel perhaps another day or so may have given us a totally different perspective of the place & its people. The drive is a challenge by anyone’s standards and more so when your driver is in a hurry. The bus has to negotiate 36 hairpin bends and most of the passengers (not us thankfully) end up throwing up into sick bags provided by the bus company. They even run out of them by the time we hit the plains. It does make us wonder why these folks who have paid quite a lot for this bus trip couldn’t take a motion sickness tablet (cost about Rs 5) that would stop their discomfort.

The drive takes us right through the heart of the Mudumalai National Reserve where we spot 4 wild elephants and many deer. Next we are into the Bandipur Tiger Reserve – but no tigers I’m afraid despite a thorough search around.

Eventually we hit Karnataka – the next state and eventually (after a 20 mins pit stop for a comfort break and some lunch) we arrive ahead of schedule in Mysore.

Mysore – The Garden City (we are not so sure!)

We arrive at the Mysore Central Bus station ½ hour ahead of schedule. It’s an impressive bus station, modern and bustling. It’s also clean and has good information counters, a few eateries (veg & non-veg), plenty of snack stands and all the facilities you would expect.

We are persuaded by a “tout” to try the Aishwaraya Residency nearby rather than go to our chosen hotel as it offers free wi-fi and various other amenities unlike the one we were going to for the same price. So we check it out and it’s ok – as much as we dislike dealing with touts, the free wi-fi clinches it for us as we need this for sorting out many things for our trips to Japan & The Philippines and to skype Sarah on her Big Birthday!!

It’s pretty hot in Mysore and our first impressions of the city is that it is well planned with wide streets, pretty clean, with buildings reflecting its history under Mughal rule, The Royal heritage, the British and now Indian independence. Most places in the central area are walkable. In theory it’s a place we should enjoy. But….What is interesting for us is the absence of good eating places in & around the centre. There are hundreds of Hotels that have small eating places (veg or non-veg) but very few decent restaurants. And so it doesn’t quite do it for us as a place of interest.

We read about a day trip of Mysore and Sirangapatna (the abode of the once King Tippu Sultan) run via the Karanataka Tourism Office which we decide to go for. At Rs 210 each, it starts at 8.30 am and finishes at about 8.30 pm.

We are the only foreigners on the small mini bus for the trip. The rest are folks from various parts of India visiting Mysore. The guide thankfully speaks in English, Hindi and Kannada (the local state language). The tour covers the following sites:

Jaganmohan Palace:

This is the old residence of one of the rulers of Mysore which is now an “Art Gallery” come Museum. Entry is Rs 130 for foreigners and we weren’t sure about going in but didn’t have a lot of option as we had to pay the guide up front for all the entry tickets – this included. We were pleasantly surprised though. The building has architectural merit. Inside it has a host of regal memorabilia, many rare musical instruments, some great paintings – notably one called The Glow of Hope which has a room to itself and is impressive as is a pencil drawing of Tagore. There were amazingly carved Tusks and a black stone elephant. The Rosewood hand carved furniture was awesome as was the marble small replica of the Mysore palace. Upstairs, there’s an amazing Ivory Palanquin that once carried the rulers here. The inside of the building looks tired but the size of it all gives a sense of what royalty had in days gone by.

Mysore Palace (Ambavilas Mahal):

The big cheese in Mysore without doubt. Entry is Rs 250 to the main palace and they want another Rs 280 from foreigners to see the residential bit of the palace. This is optional & we opt out. The Palace though is still a working palace for ceremonial events in Mysore. The big festival is Dussehra in Oct when the King and gentry go on an elaborate parade & jamboree with decorated elephants, horses etc.

We are not allowed to take cameras in so no photographs unfortunately. The place is well maintained as it’s still private. The most striking areas are The Main Durbar, The Marriage room (which has the most amazing glass ceiling made of iron and stained glass manufactured in Glasgow. The scope of colours makes it breath-taking – a truly grand design for its day!) And finally the King’s private audience room – again the ceiling is a beautifully coloured stained glass marvel of craftsmanship. It brings the place alive – even today. The door to and from the room are amazingly carved with ivory insets. One is carved in Silver. All very regal and grand as befitting a king! Well worth the entry fee.

The surrounding garden and area is also well maintained and there are a variety of Temples at corners of the outer perimeter and very grand gateways on each side. The elephants are kept in an enclosure not far away. The palace glows with a hundred thousand light bulbs every Sunday between 7 and 8 pm & for big national events.

St Philomena’s Church (AKA St Joseph’s Cathedral):

It’s a catholic cathedral which has a Gothic look to it but neither the outside or inside are particularly spectacular. It’s a 10 min whistle stop trip.

The Mysore City Zoo:

It’s part of the trip & not somewhere we were looking forward to having had our fill of zoos (no disrespect to Pi & Pondicherry!!) However, this for us was the surprise package of the lot. Entry Rs 40 – foreigners and Indians (parity for once - yeah). It’s really clean, well laid out and the directions and signs lead you to all the sites. It looks well-kept and managed; there is significant investment in new areas being prepared for the animals. They have a great selection of birds including white peacocks which we’ve never seen before. Some of the other highlights for us were the really healthy Bengal Tigers, the awesome leopards, the cheetahs, the white rhino and the only Gorilla in India.

Chamundi Hill & Nandi - The Bull:

On top of Chamundi hill is a temple – nothing special to look at as Indian Temples go but is apparently one of the most sacred. A quick flit through (Rs 30 entry + Rs 2 for the shoes stand – a new Indian stealth tax or enterprise by all temples and mosques!! In addition to the ridiculously high entry fees for foreigners.)

Half way down the hill, there’s a 10 minute stop to see a huge Bull called Nandi (representing Shiva) carved from one very large stone – quite impressive really.

After a few photos we were ready for lunch.The break for lunch is at a Hotel complex in the city which looks in part like a building site. The options are a South Indian Thali & a North Indian Thali at a set price and not particularly a good advert for Mysore or Indian cuisine – enough said. The prices of the cold drinks were extortionate too.

Srirangapatnam:

Was the seat of Tippu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali. They ruled for 36 years. Tippu Sultan had his fort and palace here and was defeated by the British and killed after a bloody encounter having been betrayed by his uncle. The place Tippu was killed is marked by a stone. The fort is in ruin and was actually blown up by the Bristish within 6 hours of the battle in 1799. The fort was strategically built on the confluence of 2 rivers. While there we stop for a visit to a very uninspiring Ranganatha Swamy Temple. Unfortunately, the guide misjudged his timings so we didn’t make it to Tippu’s summer palace which is supposed to be beautiful.

Brindavan Gardens:

The other big draw, for Indians particularly, are the Brindavan gardens – most of the middle aged and older generation who were fed on Bollywood movies (as there was no TV at the time) will recall many happy Indian songs being filmed here with hero and heroine prancing around each other coyly (with heavy suggestions of sexual attraction – Indian style of course). The gardens are at the bottom of a 3 km dam wall built by the kings of Mysore. The gardens are laid out reasonably well and separated in the middle by a lake. On one side is a nightly colourful fountain display to India music which most of the day trippers come for. It’s not quite worth the journey in our view – but Indians love gardens, sunsets and musical fountains so for them it is heaven!!

We eventually get back at 8.45pm and get dropped off near the bus stop so we can dive into the Bar for a cold beer or 2. Unfortunately, the guy serving us that night clearly didn’t like our presence in the place so ignored us for ages till his boss had to tell him off. A complete shit head compared to the guy who had served us really well the previous 2 nights.

The best eating experiences for us were at Hotel New Shilpashri Bar & Restaurant & The RRR Hotel, both in Gandhi Square. The latter is an institution and gets packed out. Their speciality is a vegetarian thali served on Banana leaves – a dying art in India. They also do a few non – veg dishes. Be prepared to queue a bit, but it’s worth it and the turnaround is really quick.

One place worth a visit is the area known as the Devaraja Market. It’s colourful and has a host of interesting stalls selling most things you are ever likely to need to live and eat. Drinks you have to get from a Bottle shop!!

Bengaluru

It’s difficult to say a lot about the place as it’s been labelled the High Tech city & happening place in India etc. However, we are only here for about 3 hours and our experience in that time is pretty poor on a number of fronts – so we are aware that our comments may not reflect the real B.

The train journey from Mysore to B goes off without a hitch. It takes 3 hours on the Chaumandi Express which only runs from Mysore to B. The station at B is pretty big and clean and they have a left luggage counter which we use so that we might explore the city a bit. However, once out of the station – the main Bus station (Majestic) is reached via an underpass. The rest of the road is blocked off and the area looks like a building site. We try to catch a rickshaw to the City Market area (as we don’t have much time) and for 1km the guy asks for Rs 200. The others aren’t interested as we suspect that the fare is pretty low. As we have had no breakfast and left the Hotel in Mysore at 5.45 am we try a local eatery at the station. Crap coffee. Toilet flooded. The public “pay as you use” Toilets which seem to be all over the South charge C Rs 3 and M only 2? Given the heat we decide it might be better at the airport rather than hang around as we hear that it’s a brand spanking new place.

So au revoir Bengaluru – we seem sure we had the worst of what the city has to offer. The 40km journey to the airport is on the Vayu Vajra A/C Bus – a special airport shuttle which costs Rs 195 each compared to the Rs 770 quoted by the Prepaid Taxi stand at the railway station. It takes 1 hour and they depart on the ½ hour from the main city bus station known as Majestic. The journey takes us through much of the northern half of B with all its flyovers and many new housing developments. It reminds us of Pune in a way – which we liked a lot, though a lot bigger and more expensive (given the advertised prices for 2 & 3 bed flats here Rs 29 Lakh to 1.5 Crore).

Bengaluru airport is relatively new (parts of it still look like its being completed) and has a lot of amenities and is a delight for travellers.

So, this whistle stop tour of some of the South, a last minute substitute for the hills and mountains of Darjeeling and Sikkim, has been a bit of a mixed experience but worth it if only for the train journey to Ooty, Mysore Palace & the carvings at Mamallapuram.


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27th March 2013

Steam train looks ace guys. Very jell xx

Tot: 2.744s; Tpl: 0.129s; cc: 15; qc: 29; dbt: 0.0469s; 2; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.5mb