A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Jules79

Mumbai

Bombay Mix

sunny 38 °C

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Formerly known as Bombay, the home of Bollywood is an exciting metropolis and a melting pot of all things Indian.

Like Manhatten, Mumbai is actually an island and the sea breeze, though not exactly fresh, is a breath of air, after the sweltering dustiness of Delhi and Northern India. The architecture is a mix of British colonial and modern Indian, with a splattering of Art Deco that would look incredible with a lick of paint or two.

With three times the national average salary, and home to some of India's richest tycoons, Mumbai is a great place to see how India's well heeled live: 5* hotels, such as the world famous Taj Mahal Palace & Tower (back to it's former glory after the 2008 terrorist attacks), swanky bars and luxury seafront apartments, all of which are easy on the eye. Though, as is so often the case in India, they stand in stark contrast to the extreme poverty which is never far away - for Mumbai is also home to Dharavi, one of Asia's biggest slums, housing 60% of Mumbai's population.

I personally chose not to go on a slum tour, It felt too voyeuristic somehow. Instead, as the last stop before flying home (volcanic dust cloud permitting), I decided to soak in the atmosphere and dedicate myself to the art of wandering... and maybe just a touch of shopping. And that's where you get to see the heart and soul of the city - persistent touts selling giant balloons, bustling ancient markets and bazaars, couples taking sunset strolls down Chowpatti Beach, street vendors selling deliciously sizzling delicacies and tossing roti bread faster than you've ever seen.. as always, back to the delicious Indian food!

Where we stayed:
Bentleys Hotel, Colaba - from 1530 rs/night - The Taj it's not, but it is a stone's through away from the infamous hotel, and if you're on a budget, it's a good compromise. The rooms are clean and airy, and it's a delightfully crumbling, if a little musty, art deco building, with high ceilings and painted floor tiles.

If you've got money to burn or just fancy treating yourself on your last night, the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower has rooms from 18,500/night. The Intercontinental (similar price) with it's sea views and swanky rooftop pool and bar, is a great contemporary alternative.

Where to eat:
Enjoy a quick bite or a delicious capuccino at on of Moshe's cafes - the prices are on a par with home but it's a delicious treat

Enjoy the best Mangalorian seafood in town at Trishna's restaurant

Eat the best street food in town at Bade Miya - it's right behind the Taj and is extremely popular with locals and a smattering of tourists. Delicious chicken tikka and mutton kebabs sizzle away, whilst the roti bread gets rolled, tossed in the air and cooked in record time. Open from 7pm until late, get there early if you want to sit at one of the few plastic tables. Order liberally and wrap your meat or paneer in a roti - think fajitas, indian style...seriously tasty stuff!

Where to drink:

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Leopold's - opened in 1806, and made recently famous by the book Shantaram, this place is an institution, and packed full of travellers

Mondigar - down the road from Leopold's and a similar vibe

Busaba - tucked away down a Colaba side street, this little bar could be straight out of London's Notting hill - the prices are too. Try the Aplle Martini - yum!

The Dome Bar at the Intercontinental - quite simply breathtaking, this rooftop bar gets the decor and ambience just right, with white sofas, chilled sounds, and massive candles. Perfect for a gin and tonic and watching the Mumbai jetset, or a wonderful way to say good bye to India before your night flight home.

What to do:
Walk around Colaba and Fort, look out for the main sights (Gateway of India, Flora Fountain, Prince of Wales Museum, Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai University and the High Court) ...get a bit lost, then jump in a black and yellow taxi

Become a Bollywood Extra - we were scouted on our second day but politely declined. It's fun but also hot, hard work. A great story to tell your friends back home though!

Anyone who's read Shantaram will have heard of Leopold's - a British institution, this bar/cafe/diner was built in 1806 and is now a popular traveller's hang out

Visit Elephanta island - housing beautiful stone carvings created by Buddhist monks c. 650 AD - boats leave from India Gate every 15 mins (journey 1hr)

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We chose not to but you may be interested in taking a slum tour to Dharavi - a fascinating insight into one of Asia's biggest slums - just check that a good proportion of the tour's profits go into regenerating the slums.

Posted by Jules79 00:24 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Trains, planes and automobiles

The trials and tribulations of travelling around India

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Travelling around India is not for the faint hearted!

Queuing and the art of the elbow:
People in India do not queue. Full stop. in fact I am convinced that queue barging and elbowing your way to the front of the queue must be on the school curriculum here. It's every man for himself here, so barge or be barged!

Honking mad:

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I really wouldn't be surpised if half the Indian population had hearing difficulties as a direct result of honking. They honk for any and every reason possible: I'm here "HONK"; my car's bigger/faster than yours, so I'm overtaking "HONK"; get out of my way! "HONK". I can see you and I know you can see me but I am accelerating towards you, so dive quick! "HONK!!!!!!"

We actually met a guy who promised to pay his auto rickshaw driver double if he could take him the fifteen minute journey without honking. The guy made it but only just.

Buses:
Brace yourself. This may be one of the most traumatic experiences of your life.
Sure, if you take a well travelled route and chance upon an AC Volvo coach, it'll be a breeze but we had some truly horrible experiences on buses. From travelling in excess of 60 miles an hour on windy Himalayan roads at night, to being ripped of and deposited on a local 16 hour bus journey to Agra, only to reach the final destination of - well, not Agra - we had some shockers. The bus stations are always full of touts and are pretty grim to say the least.
If you have to travel by bus, plan carefully and try and get on a good one.

Trains:
When people kept telling me that trains were by far the best way to travel around India, I had images of private cabins with romantic views straight out of Pineapple Express. Silly, silly girl.
Whilst by far the best and cheapest way to travel around India, there are some essential rules to remember when travelling by train:

Book well in advance or you won't get a seat!

If going on an overnight train, book 1st class AC or at the very least standard sleeper. You really don't want to spend 15 hours in a cramped carriage or with your legs hanging out the door

If your train gets cancelled and you really have to be at your next destination, get on the next one and be prepared to bribe the ticket collectors. You might get a seat, you might not.
Look for the foriegn tourist queue in the station (or if you'rea woman, the ladies only queue) - there might not always be one but if there is, it'll make life a lot easier

Planes:
No complaints here unless you're trying to fly back to the UK over a giant Icelandic volcanic cloud!

Air travel in India is generally speaking cheap, and well worth the saving in journey times. We flew with Jetlite and Kingfisher is another popular choice. Book at any travel agent or online.

[/b]Drivers:[/b]
If you have cash to burn, taking a taxi or hiring a driver may be the way forward. We didn't but having heard first hand accounts, I will definitely do so if I return to India to tour Rajastan. From £20 a day, it sounds like a bargain too.

Posted by Jules79 00:15 Archived in India Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Havelock and the Andaman Islands

Croc attack!

sunny 33 °C

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The Andaman islands are without a doubt some of the most stunning islands I have ever seen - miles of white sandy beaches, turquoise blue sea, they are quite simply breathtaking.

Our destination was Havelock island - a two hour boat ride from the main entry point of Port Blair, it has no pools or five star hotels, just simple bamboo huts of varying luxury and a few diving centres from which to explore the amazing world beneath the sea. This truly is a diver's paradise and a snorkeller's dream.

Havelock Island crocodile attack

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Sadly, our trip to the Andamans was tainted with some tragic and frightening news. Within hours of arriving at Havelock island, word reached us of a crocodile attack several days before. A young American woman had been killed in a freak attack whilst snorkelling on Elephant Beach with her boyfriend. The whole island is in a state of shock and my heart goes out to the poor girl's family.

Media reports have since filtered through with details of the attack, with reports claiming that two dozen crocodiles have attacked humans in the Andaman islands in the last 25yrs. However, until now, the crocodiles have only been spotted on hte uninhabited Little Andaman Island with Havelock being deemed a crocodile free zone.

According to locals this is the first such attack on Havelock island in twenty years as the island is not their natural habitat, especially not the waters in which snorkellers swim. Crocodiles dwell in shallow murky waters, in creeks, between mangroves and on shallow rocks. It seems that the freakishly high water temperatures this month (up to 35 degrees) have affected the delicate aquatic balance, prompting the crocodile to venture out of its natural habitat and hunt further afield.

Whatever the reasons, this was a tragic accident and one can only hope that lightening will not strike twice. The Andamans and Havelock are a tuly special destination but they are in the tropics - as well as crocodiles, you'll find snakes, scorpions, poisenious millepedes, wild dogs and a dozen other natural hazards. Just as in urban areas, where you'll find cars, knifes, terrorist attacks and a multitude of manmade dangers. It just seems that we are hardwired to be much more afraid of the natural ones, especially when the outcome is this horrific.

It's early days but hopefully lightening won't strike twice. The authorities are on the case, and if the crocodile hasn't already been caught, it will no doubt be soon, upon which it will be either relocated, taken to a zoo, or in the very worst case scenario, put down.

The Andamans truly are a special destination and well worth a visit before the inevitability of development changes their character forever, especially with rumours of an international airport on the horizon rife.

Snorkelling and diving:
Whilst snorkelling around Havelock island was quite sensibly banned while we were there, we were lucky enough to go on a snorkelling trip to a safe location two hours by boat from Havelock. We found Nemo and his friends swimming around this little rock island in the middle of the sea, amongst dazzlingly beautiful coral. Absolutely spectacular!

Where we stayed:
The hub of the budget to midrange accommodation is on beach no. 5, with beachhuts galore, however all the numbered beaches have accommodation and the breathtaking beach 7 is home to Barefoot 7, the most luxurious accommodation on the island and a favourite amongst honeymooners.
After checking out a few options, we chose Emerald Gecko. (low season - April-June 450-1000 rs/night, high season 1000-2000 rs/night) We payed 450rs/night to stay in a gorgeous bamboo bungalow with fan & bathroom (towels and linen provided). The beach is small but beautiful, the restaurant serves fresh seafood and the atmosphere is relaxed.

Where to eat:
There are plenty of options but our favourite haunt by far was the Wild Orchid, with excellent Tandoori chicken and fresh Tuna and Red Snapper and the best Biryani in town.
For a budget eat, try one of the local haunts in village no 3. The Welcome restaurant does a great mango lassi and samosas.

What to do:
Hire bicycles or mopeds and explore the island. Be prepared to be dripping with sweat and develop buns of steel if you attempt the cycle from beach 5 to beach 7 - it's hot, humid, hilly and the bikes are like the ones your granny used to ride.

Dive, Dive and Dive some more - The Andamans are an ideal spot for divers or snorkellers with Padi open water and more advanced courses widely available (from about 14,000rs). For those who prefer to snorkel, you can do a day trip with lunch included for around 1,000 (through Andaman Bubbles)
Watch the sunrise at beach 3 or 5, and the sunset on Beach 7. Nb. They are still on India mainland time here, even though the Andaman's are closer to Thailand so it gets light at 4.30am and is pitch black by 5.45pm!

Find a hammock and relax!

When to go:
High season is October-April. We came in May. It's seriously hot and humid and don't expect the room fan to cool you down but it's great if you want the beach all to yourself!

Posted by Jules79 00:08 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Kolkata

Calcutta

sunny 40 °C

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Made infamous by mother Teresa, Kolkata is India's second largest city and was the capital of British India. Like so much of India, Kolkata is a city of extremes - whilst the grand colonial architecture such as Victoria Memorial and leafy parks are quite beautiful, the poverty and in particular the human rickshaws left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

Even though I had been prewarned about human rickshaws, it feels inhumane to watch men carting around the rich and fat in their bare feet. I'm not so naive that I don't realise far worse happens behind closed doors in India, and to be honest you can't help but become anaesthetised to the poverty after a few weeks but what keeps coming back to hit me in the face is the benign acceptance of it all, even amongst tourists -the attitude of "we're helping them by taking a ride as they want to make money and they can't afford a bicycle" or "I wasn't that shocked, once they get some momentum, it looks quite easy" - It just didn't quite wash with me. And then when a begging child of barely 4 years old who was shooed harshly away by the westerner next to me asked me for my empty plastic bottle, only to fill it with water from the gutter and drink it, I flat out welled up. Perhaps I'm soft, perhaps I have no right to stick my privelaged western nose into India's no doubt complex social problems but I've never been so grateful of the welfare state in my life.

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Human rickshaws and begging kids aside, Kolkata is a buzzing city with a rich cultural heritage and the western Bengalis are the friendliest people we encountered in India. The cuisine is delicious, with the catch of the day lining the street markets alongside fresh fruit and veg. We're on the coast here so it's coconut seafood curries in banana leaves all the way. Maybe good food really does happy people make!

Where we stayed:
Ashreen Guest House - 450rs/night. Centrally located, clean, decent sized rooms and friendly staff. A great budget option.

Where we ate:
Blue Sky Cafe - nice little travellers cafe with great juices, lassis. Perfect for a cheap eat
For authentic Bengali cuisine, try Bhojohari Manna - we never made it but it's supposed to be great

What to do:
Built in honour of Queen Victoria's 1901 Diamond Jubilee the impressive Victoria Memorial is a photogenic white marble domed building, in an Italian Renaissance style. It houses a fascinating museum which amongst other things documents Kolkata's history and the positive and negative effects of British colonialisation on the city - really interesting stuff!

Get immersed in Indian art and history at the Indian Museum

Pay homage to Mother Teresa at Mother Teresa's Mission

Get lost in Kolkata's maze of streets and discover fresh seafood markets and delicious Bengali sweet shops - and then eat what you've seen!

Posted by Jules79 00:02 Archived in India Tagged seniors Comments (0)

Varanasi

Swimming and cremations- the spiritual capital of India

sunny 42 °C

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"You haven't been to India if you haven't seen Varanasi" we would hear people repeat over and over, so even though it had originally been a question mark on our itinerary, Varanasi it was, and what an experience!
One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India, and possibly one of the most overwhelming to visit. The holy Ganga river is visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims each year, who come here to wash away a lifetime of sins, whilst its banks are lined with burning corpses as cremations take place daily. The Hindus also believe that if you die in Varanasi, then you will be set free from the continual cycle of reincarnation and become a liberate soul.

After a bad night's sleep, we woke up at the crack of dawn for an early morning boat ride along the river Ganga and the 'ghats', where death and life are inextricably linked. It's quite something to see hundreds upon hundreds of people splashing away in a river only yards away from burning corpses. Coming from a western culture where death is neatly packaged as far away from our view as possible, it's quite unnerving being confronted with it such an public way. It felt somehow voyueristic, as if we shouldn't be there. However, we were assured by the locals that with many cremations daily, it was a natural part of the cycle of life and as long as we didn't take photos, we were welcome to be there....and what an insight into Hindu culture!

Where we stayed:
Shanti Guest House - 250 rs/tight. Shabby sheek this is not! Most of the budget accommodation is in the old town by the Ghats. Like Agra, whilst the benefit is that location wise you are in the thick of it, it again means that you are in the thick of dark, narrow alley ways, open sewers, rubbish, interrupted occasionally with the odd cow. The staff were a little moody, the food was 'western Indian' (think ragu curry) but the view is incredible and it's a stone's throw away from the action. It'll do for one night on a budget but I'd rather have stayed in hotel Surya where we used the pool (see below - approx 850rs for a double)

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Where (and where not) to eat:
We didn't have much luck finding good food in Varanasi (with the exception of hotel Surya - see below). The food in Shanti Guest House was poor, and we followed our guide book's recommendation of the Brown Bread Bakery, only to be sorely disappointed. The vast menu promised everything, inluding a cheese list that would rival that of France's top establishments - from Camembert to Vacherin - it looked amazing. It was so hot that cheese was out of the question anway but what we did order was quite honestly rancid. The seating was obviously used as bedding for the staff (we found an unwanted surprise shall I say) and the room smelt of urine. Sorry Brown Bread Bakery but I will not be recommending you to anyone.

What to do:
Get up at the crack of dawn (5am) and take a boat trip down the Ganga to watch the bathers and cremations. It's easiest to get a good deal in a group and should cost 50rs an hour per person. Sunset is another good time to go. DO NOT be tempted to take a dip yourself. The river is very polluted!
After your boat trip, escape the heat with a swimming pool day pass at one of the more expensive hotels. We went to hotel Surya which had a lovely pool and great food. In hindsight, whilst it's an auto rickshaw ride from the Ghats, it's pretty amazing value for money and once you've paid for your pool pass, we may as well have paid for a room there.

Posted by Jules79 23:52 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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