The Andaman Islands: a paradise lost?


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March 22nd 2013
Published: March 22nd 2013
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This is a brief entry and not (as if they ever are) an entertaining one. There is little information out there regarding the Andaman Islands and what is available is outdated. This blog is intended to provide some pointers for potential backpacker visitors because whether to visit or not does merit serious consideration.

Straight off the bat: the nitty-gritty. Of India’s 29 States none have more expensive accommodation than the Andaman’s Havelock Island. Well… OK, bizarrely, Nagaland and some of the other deserted North Eastern Tribal States may just steal that mantle. These two sets of locations could not be more different: the Andamans are developing as a major diving/fishing/Indian honeymoon holiday destination (and prices are soaring) whilst the Tribal States see no tourists and certain unscrupulous destinations currently screw every penny they can out of the few who do venture there. However, you, reading this, are obviously interested in the Andaman Islands and Lonely Planet’s 2011 guide listed numerous sleeping options well within backpacker range (200-400 rps/night). We read the same. Sadly the change since then has been rapid.

To get there, outside of rainy season, it will cost you a minimum of $200 round-trip to fly (Chennai or Kolkata are the cheapest departure points and Jet was the most reasonable carrier in Feb 2013). The ferry - our preferred mode of transport - is markedly cheaper (although meanly, and a rarity in the world of long distance ferries, they employ parallel local/tourist price scales, with tourists paying three times local rate for all classes). It is also a three day trip (not all negative in our book – I know of people who actually do “cruises” for weeks on end - and that’s two night’s accommodation off-set against the cost). Nevertheless, and the real choker for us, the ferry is a bitch to organize: the ships only depart from each of the three ports once or twice a month; there are no reliable long-term schedules; you can book no more than 10 days in advance and yet ferries fill rapidly once the tickets do become available (your chances of acquiring tickets a day or two prior to departure are slim); whilst sailings are also prone to delays and rescheduling. Essentially you are forced to sit in a port city, watch and wait.

So, it is either costly or time consuming to get there. Ahhh, I hear you say, but surely they are worth it?

However you travel to “the poor-man’s Mauritius” you will arrive in the pleasant enough capital of Port Blair, situated on South Andaman. Almost without exception everyone heads straight to Havelock Island. You may subsequently venture onwards to Neil Island and years ago some went to Long Island to gawp at the Jawara tribe (now thankfully banned), but that is pretty much as far as most people get.

Havelock is beautiful, sleepy, and the sea is a magnificent shade of turquoise. There are however, for the backpacker at least, many buts…. In anything close to high season (December to April) you will pay at least 400rp for a single/double occupancy hut (at Sunrise; 500rp at Coconut Grove; 700rp at Amazon) – all of these prices are for simple huts (none are literally on the beach) with common toilets and showers, your own privy will set you back a minimum of 800rps at either of the two cheapest operations. Turning up on spec is – how I hate to say this – unadvisable (we did) and is likely to cost you dearly until a cheaper option becomes available: remember everyone (we didn’t meet a single western person who had ferried it here) has flown in and has a designated flight date out (weeks away) – people are here for the long haul and the cheapest accommodation is both severely limited and in big demand. There are some poorly located hotels at 800rps, but other standard huts (many still without a loo) cost 1-2 thousand rupees and not particularly posh efforts up to 4 or 5 thousand rps (that’s pushing $100 a night – Mauritius cannot be much more expensive).

But, surely it is worth it?

Havelock is something like 15km long and 10km at its widest in the north. Most of the accommodation is on its east coast (no sunsets) at “villages” no. 3 (a 15 minute walk from the dock, or 50rps by rickshaw) and no. 5 (a further 20 minutes’ walk or 100rps); here the stunning (yet still milky – not great visibility) sea is only deep enough for a chest-deep dip at high tide and the encompassing coral is long dead for hundreds of yards out to sea. For serious snorkeling you need to do an excursion: minimum price 900rps for half-a-day (plus rental). Diving is extremely popular and expensive (such is its nature), although we have no idea as to its quality as the divers didn’t frequent any of our “dives”. Most of the diving schools are run by Barefoot who also have several guesthouse complexes (one with tiny – really tiny – A-frame huts for a bargain 200rps…. if, and only if, you’ve enrolled onto one of their courses), restaurants and an internet café. The latter we called Bare-faced cheek as it charged 20x standard Indian internet rates. Deep-sea fishing is also popular but is even more expensive (15-20,000rps day): we spoke to three different sets of fishermen (rather cruelly, given their obvious funds, entrenched in 800rp huts) who typically caught on two of every three trips out and a good fish would be a 10-15kg giant treveli, although 3-4kg reef trout were more common. The west side of the island is home to Radha Nagar beach (at village no. 7). Here the stunning mill pond of a sea is of swimmable depth and the powder white sands are bordered by haunting ancient forest. The favored “lagoon” bay is where a poor unsuspecting backpacker met his demise at the hands of a salt water croc some years back, although this was a serious anomaly (they rarely come so far north) and even Ali splashed without due concern. Unfortunately this lovely spot is somewhat isolated and there are little in the way of guesthouses or eateries (about 8km from village no. 3). Most people simply visit as a day trip (there are pseudo-hourly buses and bicycles can be rented, although many visitors – and this really is the Andaman’s clientele these days – have motorbikes on long-term rentals).

Booze from the wine shop (now located in village no. 3, not no. 1 as stated in LP: open 9-12 and 3-8, closed on Thursdays) is a cheap as… even cheaper than Goa, although the beer is un-chilled and supplies are erratic (the wise buy by the case); that from bars – not many guest houses sell liquor and there are no bars/eateries actually on the sand – is also reasonable given the remote location. As for food: there are several ramshackle operations doing very good whole fish (snapper, barracuda, kingfish, reef trout, silver jack) stuffed with masala and baked in banana leaves for a pittance. The best are at Swapan, a shack in village no. 3, where you get a fish big enough for two and accompanying rice, veg, dahl and the owner’s magic sauce for about $5. There are also more expensive resort restaurants offering similar at thrice the price (but with better cutlery), plus more western offerings. Sadly, standard Indian fare is of low quality. Many people – especially the massed ranks of stoned Israelis – choose not to venture far from their hammocks and eat at their guesthouse.

So….. Is Havelock worth it? The fishermen, for now, say a hearty yes (although catches were definitely better in previous years and forays are ever further afield); the divers say… who knows what the cliquey divers say. As for the backpackers (well over half of whom are Israeli), this depends very much on their luck (skill/pre-planning/pre-booking) in sourcing a non-extortionately priced hut. For now we’d say yes, it is still worth the effort. Havelock is a very fine place to chill, but if prices double again in the next two years then it will simply have priced itself beyond backpackers’ means. Building is rabid across the island and they certainly aren’t putting up any cheap shacks: it doesn’t bode well.

Once cheap inter-island ferries are currently a standard 300rps per journey (that’s for the local ferries, although you will be paying three times local rates).

We had intended to also stay on Neil Island, but the cheaper accommodation is similarly limited and food/booze options even more so. Feedback from people having visited Neil is that it is very similar to Havelock…

There is however a spark of hope for the future: Little Andaman – the furthest south of the accessible islands. We heard (too late to venture there) that this is now the place: a tranquil paradise with welcoming locals, accommodation as cheap as 200rps, readily available good food, and - no doubt what will prove to be its downfall in terms of rapid development – excellent surfing (the rest of the Andamans have zero surf).

Anyway, what did we get up to? Very little really, but that was the plan.

Nevertheless, and par for the course during a long-term stop, Ali was soon acting as backpacker’s medical council. One young Israeli guy came to ask advice about his hand that he’d injured in trying to open a coconut. This was a seriously bloated infected mess and was obviously not responding to his current regime of oral antibiotics. Ali’s attempt to drain it met with minimal success. We advised the little local hospital (free) and Ali even accompanied him as he was none too confident in their proficiency. They wanted to admit him and start intra-venous antibiotics, but he kept dithering and was now waiting on hearing back from his insurance company. Plus, he wasn’t prepared to succumb to their scalpel (the free hospital has very limited funds and these don't extend to local anaesthetics – the local populace simply grit their teeth and bear minor surgery). We were seriously concerned: his hand was double normal size, he had another ugly infected mosquito bite on his shoulder and the infection in his hand was now tracking up his arm. Finally, Ali persuaded him to return to the hospital and at least start on the i-v antibiotics, whilst warning him that if he wouldn’t let the doctors here do what they thought necessary then he’d better return pronto to Port Blair’s private hospital as he was in serious danger of losing his hand, or worse. Long story short, following surgery in Port Blair, he was flown back to Israel where recovery is expected to take 2-3 months. When we came to leave Coconut Grove (wonderful staff, particularly Harry) it transpired that he had very kindly paid for a nights’ accommodation for us as thanks for Ali’s nursing care. On top of the numerous minor wounds tended and dressings applied, Ali also monitored and nursed another young Israeli, a girl, who was running a fever over a number of days (negative for malaria; there are mosquitoes, but not unbearably so and all huts have nets - unsure as to whether there is malaria on the island). Touchingly, on her recovery she presented us with self-made bracelets.

Anyways, three weeks passed in a flash. Our batteries were recharged and our bodies bronzed. We have been to more idyllic islands and there are certainly better destinations in which to enjoy the sea and where snorkeling is far more accessible. In short, the Andamans are best enjoyed with a healthy wallet; backpackers should monitor anything that is being written about Little Andaman.

And so we headed back to the mainland and Kolkata, en-route to Nepal and apple crumble…

The dearth of photographs here is partially explained by the camera being stolen (en-route to Kathmandu) prior to downloading many from the Andamans… However, that’s another story.

A few late notes:

Buy your sun cream before arriving: water-resistant creams are hard to find and extortionately priced (buy cheap non-resistant options at your peril - we got seriously burned... on skin exposed to 15 months of Asian suns).

Check-out times are seriously (peevishly-shoddily) mean, typically 8 a.m (Coconut Grove at 9 a.m. is as late as it gets).

Exiting South Andaman (Port Blair) you only need to show your permit (provided free at port/airport on arrival) to buy a ferry ticket, however returning to Port Blair (for departure) you will require a photocopy of said permit. This may/may not be the case for Neil Island etc...

It is totally walkable (less than 15 mins with packs) from Phoenix (ferry post) to the centre of town (Aberdeen bazaar).

Many guesthouses in Port Blair will allow for a delayed check-out if you have a late flight out (do not expect such free courtesies on Havelock).

The choice is yours....


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22nd March 2013

Sorry to read this
I visited the Andaman Islands just after the 2004 Asia Tsunami. Was there five-weeks and we met only half-a-dozen tourists during that whole time. We got around the islands a fair bit, and it sure felt like paradise back then...adventurous into the bargain. Of course accommodation then was unnaturally cheap as we are able to procure very fancy rooms for backpacker prices. Sad to hear about the two-tier pricing on the ferries. I guess the increased numbers of tourists these days can be expected as it is a special place, and the price inflation a result of supply and demand. I had hoped to go back one-day, though reading this I may opt to keep my memories unsullied with the contemporary turn of events. Though on the other hand I'm sure most locals prefer wall-to-wall tourists than no-tourists, post-tsunami.
22nd March 2013

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22nd March 2013

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24th March 2013

great one;-)
Thanks for the summary - very informative blog for those who want to visit this part of the world. We have never been there and always thought of Andamans as honeymoon/wedding destination but now we know there is still a place for us there:-) happy travels, B&T

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