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There and back again: a conflicted (and reimagined) India Trip Report

There and back again: a conflicted (and reimagined) India Trip Report

Jan 22nd, 2015, 01:42 PM
Join Date: Apr 2008
Posts: 612
Warm Friday morning greetings to you, Bill, from the lovely and efficient Incheon airport in one of my favourite countries for meetings, South Korea. (Will have more in future on the impending Four Seasons, Seoul property.) Writing to extend Congratulations on some most informative and thoughtful posts. Well done Bill; looking forward to more.

Noticed you stayed at the Mandarin Oriental in our fine home of Singapore. Hope she met your expectations. If so, will suggest staying with her sister in Tokyo during your next Japan holiday. I enjoyed a most satisfactory business stay at the MO Tokyo last year. (And will also give praise to a most recent Tokyo business travel delight, the Shangri-La.)

Now, if some of your holiday flights to and from India entailed "our" Singapore Airlines, would be interested in your impressions. Those sensational SIA cabin crews can have their moments. And, speaking of good old SQ, sending this morning missive off to you and all from SIA's ICN SilverKris Lounge (am soon flying SQ home to Singapore).

Keep up the brilliant work, Billy. Warm Friday and early weekend wishes to you and all,

macintosh (robert)

... Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly ...
AskOksena is offline  
Jan 24th, 2015, 08:44 AM
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"On five star hotel issue, I think that discussion has been had may times here at Fodors with certain factions believing that 5* is the only way to travel, and others saying that is unrealistic and unaffordable for most people. And, I guess I'd also argue that even in the US the vast majority of domestic travelers do not limit their stays to only 5* properties. A certain demographic does, but it is a very small percentage."

WHO are the Fodorites who say that people should ONLY stay at 5 star chain properties. I have been on Fodors for 15 years and have yet to encounter anyone who says that, must less an entire "faction". There is no need to make snide assertions about other people's hotel choices just to make you feel superior about the places you stay.

I've stayed at 3 star places that were comfortable and clean but that weren't friendly. I've stayed at 5 star places where the staff and guests were friendly and sociable. Where I met a mix of doctors, artists, musicians, business people, IOW, individuals, not soulless robots with big wallets who were created by a cookie cutter machine. Please drop the condescending stereotypes.

(We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore because it had a wonderful pool, IMO the best in the city, and we love great pools in urban hotels. That's our main reason for staying in 5 star hotels -- at reduced rates, of course.)

Back to the OP, we are really enjoying your trip report. Please continue!
WeisserTee is offline  
Jan 24th, 2015, 12:53 PM
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I've been around these forums a long time too. And, if you look through many threads and many questions and many trip reports, you will see that over and over again quite a few posters recommend the Taj and Oberoi experience for India when people ask for suggestions about places to stay. I'm not going to name names, but several immediately come to mind.

You notice I said, "factions"; not everyone. The unfortunate reality is that when this (recommendations for the 5* experience) happens new people who come here to learn about a possible travel experience to India assume they will not be able to afford it if the only viable lodging options are 5*.
julies is offline  
Jan 25th, 2015, 09:54 PM
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Finally, the long awaited Part II of my observations and tips.

I'll follow this up with a Part III that'll touch on some of the highlights and a little retrospection.

I'll admit, I was hesitant to write anything additional about my hotel stays because I feared it'd be used the wrong way to further a supposition being fomented here that I don't agree with. But this report is my honest attempt to relay my experience and I can only hope it'll be used strictly as that and not to further generalizations.

And for those of you with outstanding questions, I'll be getting to those now as well (thanks for being so patient!)
filmwill is offline  
Jan 25th, 2015, 09:59 PM
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One big takeaway is: don’t trust whatever lead times your agents give you to get to wherever you need to go. I found, at least, that anyone’s estimated time of arrival for where we needed to get was almost always off at least a good hour … or more in some instances.
Traffic, of course, is mostly blame – as is the fog. But the thing that struck me as most odd: no one seemed to understand how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B in their own country! They should come to LA. We memorize the amount of time it takes to get to the most trivial places (your house to the pharmacy) in ant given situation on any given day because traffic is such an intrinsic part of our life. It escapes me how there is so little forethought put into travel times especially when fog and traffic are so a part of the culture.
I don’t know if agents just don’t want to factor in the worst-case time when planning things because they’re worried it’ll upset their clients to get them up earlier or out earlier…but they need to be honest, especially when it’s at the risk of missing flights, etc.
Luckily, I started picking up on this and timing trips in my head (and using Google Maps on my phone while on the road) so it was easy to get a grasp of how long it’d really take, so we didn’t end up missing things we had planned (just had to push the drivers in a few instances). Most specifically, a few times, I had to tell drivers to ignore their orders and come earlier. Sometimes that was met with a bit of disdain because they didn’t want to wake up earlier, but at least we made all our flights.
Example. We had a friend from LA in Agra (we overlapped for only one night) and we planned months in advance to have dinner with him and his son while they were in India. He was flying from a friend’s wedding in Bangalore to Delhi then being driven from Delhi to Agra. Yes, his flight was delayed and that’s a big part of why we didn’t see him, but once he arrived in Delhi – and when it was clear that there was tons of fog on the road – they were told they’d be in Agra in 3 hours. It took us 4 to get there with no fog. So, of course, we prepped them for the fact that we wouldn’t see them for dinner. Their driver and handler kept insisting the whole way they would be there in 3. Well, we went to bed …and they arrived in 6 hours. So, case-in-point: add a decent amount of time to any timeframe your agent gives ESPECIALLY when in relation to catching flights. I’m sure it’s a testament of wanting to ‘please the client’ but be aware that timing is everything in India when it comes to itineraries, so the take-away is: take timing into your own hands.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the crazy part. Let me take a moment to talk about something magical. The tourist rut had really gotten to us by the time we reached Udaipur and a friend of mine happened to email me exactly at the right moment about a place they had experienced on a previous trip just in the nick of time.
There is an animal rescue and rehabilitation operation in Udaipur run by a family originally from Seattle called Animal Aid. Impressively enough, they moved their daughter and themselves to India almost 14 years ago and have dedicated themselves to building a foundation that helps rehabilitate (and in some instances, care for permanently) injured, sick and/or abused animals—be they cows, monkeys, pigs … or, in most cases, street dogs.
The whole conceit of placing value on animals’ lives (with the one exception of cows) seems to be a very new concept in India, but locals have luckily learned about AA and what they do by now so when they see a dog that's fallen into a hole or a monkey that’s been electrocuted or a cow that’s swallowed plastic when eating garbage on the street, some folks will call Animal Aid and they send one of their two “ambulances” to pick up the animal, bring them back to their sprawling facility (located just on the outskirts of the city center) and do everything within their power to give them a shot at life.
We signed up immediately.
I called them from the hotel that night, asked if we could come in the morning and they were more than grateful to have us there. We spent 4 hours that day touring the facility, meeting all their current inhabitants and…in a time I’m sure not to forget for a very long time to come…spent hours petting and brushing at least 15-20 dogs that are permanently paralyzed and have been permanently adopted by the organization. You really don’t have to do much to make a difference. Just give some animals that have lost their ability at a normal life to know that there’s some love and kindness left in the world.
I’m not a very spiritual guy, but when I say these people are doing God’s work, I mean it. These organizations are a dime a dozen in the States, but in India this is a very new concept – and they really are trailblazers. So, if the mood suits you, go visit them…or search out other places that speak to you.
Not sure if this qualifies as uniquely “India” but this moment of our trip was so very special to us that I felt compelled to share it. More people need to know about them.
Check them out:

[Note: I’ve had to edit this section based on the colorful input on this thread recently] Ahh, the glorious subject of hotels—how controversial this topic has become on Fodors! Yes, we chose to be “in the bubble” for most of the trip. Not because we felt we had to in order to “enjoy” India—and certainly not because we’re 5 star people--but because we knew, on this trip in particular, we needed some serious pampering and because, in my research of hotels, I didn’t see a lot of ‘in-between’ hotels.
A very long and difficult year at both of our jobs, coupled with a trip to a place that isn’t very relaxing by definition…felt, to us, we needed an element of relaxation into the trip, that was by nature of picking a few places that’d really make our eyes pop and this seemed like the country that if you were going to splurge, it was really going to pay off. For the most part, that was true.
The point I want to make here is not that A’s 5* hotel was better than B’s 5* hotel, but rather more about setting your expectations when you are in hotels of a certain ilk in India (and I suppose this could be anywhere, but I’ve never quite felt it this way before anywhere else).
YES, there are many wonderful, relaxing things about going this route (the Udaivilas was insanely gorgeous, and the bathtub was something they write poems about!) but there’s also a high number of staff to guest ratio at some of these places. At the Oberois in particular, this was really odd for me. I guess I’m just not the kind of guy who likes people to open every single door for me, put a napkin in my lap, and call me ‘sir’ at any given moment in time. In the instances of the Oberois in particular, I felt a bit like I was a slave owner with them crowding around me saying ‘Yes, Mr. Filmwill’ this and ‘anything you would like, Mr. Filmwill?’ that every other moment. It was a bit suffocating. Everything about the hotel grounds and rooms were stupdendous and the whole reason for booking there (for the visual eye candy of the grounds—or for staying in a palace) were absolutely fulfilled, but because there is so much emphasis (at some 5 star places) placed on over-extending to the guest, it can be a bit much sometimes.
I think it’s important to add that this isn’t particular to India, but more particular to the way places sometimes feel they need to cater to Westerners but don’t really understand what that means. For instance, at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, arguably the same kind of 5* property, the service is must more subdued and never feels suffocating. But I’ve also been to high-end places in Thailand and Burma that suffer from the same issue: where the idea of ‘luxury’ is so new and they try their best to train the staff, but it’s sort of out of a manual of how they think Westerners want to be treated and ends up being awkward and misdirected. Maybe others know the kind of nuance I’m talking about?
Now, of course, for every ‘overkill’ 5 star hotel I experienced, there was a great one to match it. Nadesar Palace in Varanasi has 10 rooms and has just as much personalized service, but because there’s only 10 rooms and not 200, the service was absolutely sublime and genuine. Every night, the chef would come to our table and speak to us (in 20 min spurts) about cooking techniques (my hubby is an amateur chef), spices, his favorite foods…and, when we left, he came back to the hotel early with a folder of hand-written recipes for us. He even gave me his email and asked that we stay in touch and share recipes (which we already have!)
I should point out here too that Raas (Haveli) in Jodhpur was also a particularly wonderful place. Not a 5 star, but it felt like it in every way that matters; wonderful the grounds, jaw-dropping views of the fort everywhere you go, etc.. This hotel was actually the kind I hoped we could’ve had our entire trip. Just enough pampering, more on the high-end boutique side and perfectly warm and unobtrusive service.
In retrospect, yes, would’ve wanted more homestays and some more unique experiences, but it’s all lessons learned. If there ever is a 2nd India trip, we of course know what I’d really want on the next visit.

Everyone’s been asking it, so let’s get to it: we did not get sick. At all. Not once. I don’t know if we earned some karmic credit from the universe somewhere along the way in all our travels, but it’s not lost on me that the one trip I worried most about getting sick on is the one trip I didn’t have a single gastrointestinal issue at all. Even in Thailand (where we’ve been more than anywhere else), I almost always have a little tiny ‘episode’ at least once on those trips … but here, nothing.
I certainly do believe that, while one absolutely should take all precautions they can in India because the risk is a bit higher, getting sick there really boils down to common sense, trusting your instincts and complete and utter luck-of-the-draw. I, like others, know people who have gotten horrifically sick from 5-star hotels who thought they were being “safe” in India, so I don’t believe there’s any real guarantee of anything.
We did not eat meat at all, so perhaps that helped our chances. We ate an almost completely vegetarian diet the whole time we were there (with the exception of fish in Kerala, which was too delicious to pass up). Did this help our overall stomach cause? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t eat the meat in India if you paid me, so I don’t regret the decision.
And this is where I mean ‘trust your gut’. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t eat it. Don’t feel pressured to eat it. Don’t worry about offending anyone. If you don’t feel comfortable, just go with what seems right. Is this a guaranteed recipe for not getting sick? Probably not. But I do think there’s a lot to be said for following your instincts when it comes to raw veggies, uncooked chutneys, etc.
That said, and since my dear friend smeagol knows that I am a sucker for a good martini, I will say that in the nicer places we stayed in – and because I felt for certain the ice was filtered in those places – I had ice in my drinks. And it worked out. Again, it felt comfortable and safe. Was it? Seemed to work out but maybe it’s not scientific.
I think this carries across pretty much anywhere you visit in the world. You just have trust what feels ‘right’ or ‘safe’ to you. There’s no guarantee about your ability to stay healthy. You have to find the happy medium between worrying about every single morsel you eat and just going with your instinct and enjoying your trip.

When people talk about the “real” India, this is what they are talking about. What I appreciated most about Varanasi was that there wasn’t any way anyone was hiding the real India there. Finally!
Sure, it’s still on the tourist circuit, but for as many people who wax philosophic about Varanasi I think a ton of people get “worried” about going there – the idea of burning bodies on the Ganges or the amount of disfigured people begging in the streets. I guess all I saw was a place full of life: one that confronts death in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s almost beautiful. Is it dirty? I loved all the little alleys and winding streets, the nighttime flower markets and the smell of rotis being fried on skillets. Is it oppressively touristic to sit in hords of tourists to witness and aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges at night? Of course! But you still know you’re witnessing something ancient and wonderful that’s been happening for centuries.
Don’t listen to people when they tell you you’ll see dead bodies floating in the Gange. Maybe that’ll happen during monsoon season, but it’s nothing like the over-exaggerated stories you’ve heard or read about.
No great insights that others haven’t already mentioned about Varanasi, other than to just go, go, GO for God’s sake.

And on one final, lighter note: I had always wanted to try ayurverdic massage but didn’t ever happen to have the opportunity until this trip. I’m all about new experiences, I love massage and am I an extremely open-minded person when it comes to both embracing local traditions…and public nudity (which you kind of have to be to experience this) so you’d think this would be right up my alley. But boy, oh, boy, I have to say: this had to have been one of the more odd experiences I’ve had in life. Still not sure if I enjoyed it or if it would’ve been more appropriate in a David Lynch movie.
For those not in the know, you basically get a very rigorous full body oil massage by two masseurs (always of the same sex) in a very skimpy loincloth (that would make Caligula squeal with joy) that only really gives the illusion of covering up your unmentionables. Otherwise, as Van Morrison says: let it all hang out. So, if you’re even slightly modest, best to throw that all out the window.
Had two of these massages on the trip. The first one was just plain uncomfortable and weird, as it was in a very clinical setting in Cochin, which probably added ever-so-slightly to the creepy/icky factor. Having two hairy old dudes pour hot oil on you and lube you up like a Cadillac on a lift was just a bit…shall we say…unrelaxing. I’ll also add that I’m convinced they reused the oil at the first place we went to, if only for its putrid smell. That, or they fried food in it at night and used it on guests during the day. ☺
But felt like I needed to give it another shot since my friends had raved about it and I felt like maybe I missed something the first time… and that once was at our hotel in Kumarakom and, because the atmosphere was a bit more posh there and because the guys were a bit less swarthy, that felt a lot more relaxing.
But still: if you do decide to have one – and I recommend it if only for the stories you’ll tell your friends when you get back – know that you get oiled up to the point you could probably slide your way through the bars of a baby crib…and sometimes that oil can be rather fragrant and stain your clothes. So make sure that—wherever you choose to do Ayurveda—that you wear something you’re not worried about getting oily and make sure they have shower facilities where you can not only wash off, but use soap once your massage is done.
Surely one of the strangest experiences on the trip.
filmwill is offline  
Jan 25th, 2015, 10:32 PM
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I think I said it further up this thread but fabulous info for first timers.... I was discussing this with D the others day saying it's good to get that honest perspective. I read all the above not as a warning against visiting India but to go with your eyes wide open.....and yes YOU do love a Martini or 2

The bit about the massage is going to keep me laughing all day ( just like the ahem " flower exhibition" photo......)
Smeagol is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 02:35 AM
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Love this, filmwill! I completely agree with everything you wrote about Varanasi. And your description of the massages has to be a top-ten in Fodorsville! You've given me a great start to my day!
progol is online now  
Jan 26th, 2015, 05:09 AM
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Thank you SO MUCH for part 2, especially martini part b/c DH is a martini fanatic! So glad you stayed healthy, will take the tip about no meat very seriously. Please if you can, tell me if you shopped for rugs, and any restaurants you especially enjoyed in Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Udaipur. We leave in 2 days, will be sure to avoid ayurvedic massage!
FromDC is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 05:18 AM
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I continue to enjoy your report too, Filmwill. I wonder if some of the issues around timing has to do with a more relaxed culture as we have in some parts of the country here (e.g. Southern time).
tripplanner001 is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 07:17 AM
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Still enjoying your report.

Did they drip oil onto your forehead and into your hair during your massage? The oil is supposed to fall on your "third eye" and open it up. That was the most disconcerting part for me. I've experienced it, I don't have to do it again...
Kathie is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 10:40 AM
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filmwill, been eagerly awaiting your next installment and you don't disappoint. I definitely can relate to discomfort from too much service hovering….we're also be at Raas (and Samode Haveli) and I think those will be more to my liking. As much as I'm a massage fan, so glad you tipped us off to India's format so that will be a miss. And congrats on your immune system! Will be sure to avoid meat…but keep those ice cold cosmos coming!
And, your most important tip to allow for more travel times has been noted. Do you recall how long it took you to drive to New Delhi's airport from the Leela Palace? We're also going to be staying there and I've been advised to leave at 6p for a 10:30pm international flight.
barefootbeach is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 10:43 AM
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barefoot, the massage Filmwill and I described is Ayurvedic massage. You can get other kinds of massage in India. I had a wonderful massage at the spa at the Oberoi in Kolkata.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 11:38 AM
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Just a few comments on your last post (with no hotel comments, although I think our tastes are similar):

Fog - while this is an issue at times, it has not been an issue for us on our 3 visits of which 2 were in February and 1 (very brief) was in October.

"Off the circuit" travel - anything without a guide in India will reward you but I really appreciate what you did, Billy...

5-star hotels - we did Oberoi's and other top end places on our first trip and had no regrets. The thing I perceived from the Indian staff at the Oberoi's was as soon as you had checked out, you were no longer "special". There was a noticeable change in attitude towards us as we were leaving - just not friendly. This was several years ago and maybe this has changed, or maybe not. I believe the personal experience with the chef you experienced could have happened anywhere in India at any price level. It just depends on the individuals you encounter. I agree with you that too much attention is suffocating...

We have never gotten sick in India and I am certain it is because we have stuck to a vegetarian diet with a couple of exceptions where we felt really safe. The Indian vegetarian cuisine that we had was almost always delicious and filling - the breads are amazing. I generally stick to beer and drinks without ice but would not hesitate to order something with ice in an upscale restaurant or bar.

Good commentary on Varanasi.

Have not done a massage in India and after your post have no desire to experience one .

I would like hear lots of detail on your time in the south - not too many here with your travel style have posted on this...
Craig is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 12:42 PM
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Haha - poor filmwill. Hope you got a photo. Maybe it was the jet lag, but we were cool with our dosha-pacifying and third eye treatments at Devi Garh, which seemed to be administered with reasonably fresh oil. Can't say if we've any lasting benefits to opening our third eye though.
crosscheck is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 01:32 PM
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Glad you enjoyed the oil dripping on you, crosscheck. At the time I thought it was probably an acquired taste - one which I had not acquired yet and didn't have a lot of interest in acquiring.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 01:59 PM
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I too will definitely avoid anything to do with massage. yuk.
annhig is offline  
Jan 26th, 2015, 02:12 PM
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Enjoying your report. Loved Varanasi as well...probably our highlight. I did get sick, but it's not stopping me from returning. Happened on the last day at a highly recommended restaurant. Perhaps next time I'll avoid meat!
dgunbug is offline  
Jan 27th, 2015, 05:22 AM
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I absolutly agree with #5! We visited Animal Aid and loved it. I wish we could have stayed as long you got to. If I had known the rest of Udaipur wouldn't have taken that long to see, I would have spend more time at Animal Aid.
wanderlust86 is offline  
Jan 27th, 2015, 08:09 AM
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FromDC, unfortunately, no, we did not end up doing any rug shopping (much as I may have liked to). I should clarify: we didn't do any INTENTIONAL rug shopping. We did get shanghai'd a bit in Delhi by our guide who brought us to a Kashmiri "workshop" without asking. As soon as I realized what we were being baited into, we left. Can't say the rugs we saw were anything to write home about. Nice stuff but not anything worth sending home. But, in all fairness, I think had we actually searched out rug shops on our own, we would've been sure to find some very beautiful rugs.

As for restaurants--just a few notes off the top of my head: definitely check out Indian Accent in Delhi (make reservations through your hotel) -- it's sort of a modernist translation of Indian food. Beautiful presentation, great taste and wonderful service. Not as expensive as you'd expect a place like that to be, either. Definitely a highlight for us.

In Agra, I really enjoyed our lunch at Green Park. It's a no frills mom and pop place (more like their house) in the middle of the city. Hard to find a bit...located in a back alley. But a gorgeous setting on a sprawling green lawn (a rarity in the middle of the city), SUPER cheap, good eats ... and a few sweet pups to round out the experience (yes, I'm a total dog person). All added up to a unique and fun experience. Certainly nothing fancy but a great break from the rut of tourist lunches if you're looking to get out of that.

In Udaipur, I'll chime into the chorus of praises for Ambrai (you also MUST make reservations here, or you won't get the tables right on the water--and you want that view!) Gorgeous setting overlooking City Palace lit up at night ... super romantic. Good food (not amazing, but solid).

In Varanasi, we mostly ate in our hotel--which coincidentally were some of the best meals we had on our trip.
filmwill is offline  
Jan 27th, 2015, 08:55 AM
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FW, thanks so much for the response. We have a reservation at Indian Accent and were intending to get one at Ambrai, will get going on that one. I have the names of a couple of rug places, I am looking for dhurries.

Did you do much in Agra itself that took you to Green Park? I was expecting to take a pass on the city and instead go to Fatepur Sikri (we have 2 nights, but only one full day in Agra). We don't plan on going to Agra Fort.
FromDC is offline  

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