Thursdaysd's South Asian Sojourn

Old Apr 19th, 2011, 01:42 AM
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I guess once bitten twice shy but beg you to defer your decison, promise you there are lots of good chickens in Sri Lanka and also India, and you don't want to miss the butter chicken masalas or chicken palandi! It's more about chossing he right places to eat, one can even fall sick on potatoes at the wrong stop.
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Old Apr 19th, 2011, 04:36 AM
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"It's more about chossing he right places to eat" - neither dogster nor I (nor, I think, Cheryl) got sick in what one would expect to be the WRONG places. Come on, the Gateway Hotel, owned by Taj, was one of my splurges!
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 08:25 AM
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Dec 22-28 - Taking it easy in Trivandrum

Major holidays can be difficult for solo travelers (just as they can for singles at home). The last time I spent Christmas in India, a friend flew out to meet me in Kerala, and after a couple of lazy nights on a houseboat, we settled into a boutique hotel in Kochi. We had a great time, but my friend can no longer travel, and I didn’t feel like going back – a lot more people were traveling in December 2010 than December 2001, and I had heard that the handful of houseboats I remembered had exploded into hundreds. I also wasn’t wild about the idea of sharing a beach with a lot of romantic couples or partying groups (the same thoughts that had put me in Laos instead of on a Thai island when the tsunami hit in 2004). Nor did I want to pay inflated holiday prices.

I decided that what I really needed were rest and a good internet connection – I had done zero planning for Sri Lanka, and my flight to Colombo was just a couple of weeks after Christmas. So I picked a place people were likely to be leaving, Kerala’s state capital Trivandrum (renamed Thiruvananthapuram – what was wrong with Trivandrum?) where I found a good rate for the Keys, part of a budget business chain.

I really liked the Keys. The decor was cooler, the staff more efficient and my room both bigger and more comfortable than at the Ginger. And the wifi was free. While almost any hotel room looks good fresh off a night train, especially when you get to check-in early, I still liked the Keys after six nights. Even the buffets weren’t bad, and no one made a fuss if I ordered off the menu instead (for some reason I developed a sudden taste for french fries!). The staff made a special effort for Christmas, both with the buffet and the decorations, although I was a bit puzzled by the blue and white balloons.

I was still recovering from the chicken disaster in Coonoor, and I found the humidity level way high, so I didn’t do a lot of sightseeing. Along with a great many locals I took a look at the zoo, which I found rather sad, and I wasn’t impressed by the over-developed beach at Kovalam. An expedition to visit the wooden palace at Padmanabhapuram gave me a good look at crowded roads and last-minute shoppers, but the palace itself was closed for the day. A prominent Kerala politician had just died, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the day of mourning would affect a palace in Tamil Nadu.

I did get a rest, I did get my trip to Sri Lanka planned, despite the holidays, and I Skyped friends and family with Christmas greetings. I also got my hair hennaed and my toes painted, and did a little shopping. I had a trouble finding deodorant, and failed altogether to find dental floss and small plastic bags – interesting cultural differences you don’t notice on shorter trips. I also bought the first souvenir of the trip – a pashima shawl. I bought at the government store, the SMSM Institute, so no bargaining.
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 03:51 PM
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Hi thursdayd
What a trip. I definately could not continue travelling for so long.
I hope that you have reviewed the hotels you stayed at on TA. It would be so good to have a current view of some of these hotels that indicate that they are the best. The photographs of many were taken in their heyday and not updated and the poor traveller gets seduced by the beautifully lit photographs.
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Old Apr 20th, 2011, 03:58 PM
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Rasputin1 - I posted what I considered the most important reviews on TA while I was traveling. I'll post more after I get caught up on the TR!
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Old Apr 23rd, 2011, 12:19 PM
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Dec 28-31 - Temple Town

There is one reason, and only one reason, to go to Madurai: the massive, mesmerizing Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple. True, there's also a rather nice if neglected palace and a Gandhi Museum, but I can't imagine putting up with Madurai just to visit them. I don't know whether the town seemed grungier than usual because it actually was grungier, or just in contrast to the temple. (Not that the temple floors are particularly clean, even though you have to take your shoes off.)

Of course, my jaundiced view of Madurai might have been colored by my first sight of the town, trekking with my pack down the streets near the station at 11:30 at night (the hotel was too close to make a taxi worthwhile), or by my hotel, the Madurai Residency, which suffered in contrast to the Keys in Trivandrum (but was much cheaper). The hotel hadn't looked too bad when I checked in, but then I discovered that the sink drained partially onto the floor, the shower was so feeble I used the bucket and pail instead, and if I wanted hot water in the evening I had to have it delivered in a bucket anyway. Instead of wifi the hotel provided one virus-laden computer in the mosquito-infested lobby, and breakfast in the too-small dining room was hardly worth eating. After I had to switch beds and dig out my silk sleep sack because I was getting bitten, I seriously considered moving. The Royal Court, an equal distance from the station in the other direction, where I ate lunch one day, looked a great deal nicer. But it was also a lot pricier.

But the temple was worth a little discomfort. I'm not a big fan of Indian religious art, simple representations of gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures in bright primary colors, but I enjoyed the exuberant gopuras (gateway towers) at Madurai anyway. The town's been around in one form or another since the 4th century B.C.E., but the temple complex, dedicated to the "fish-eyed" goddess Meenakshi Amman, only dates from the 1600s. I say complex advisedly - the enclosing wall, with its 12 gateways and gopurams, defines a 15 acre space, filled with halls, corridors, shrines and a big tank.

Unfortunately non-Hindus aren't allowed in the main shrines, but this meant I had no reason to stand in the long lines of pilgrims waiting for entry. Instead I walked the halls, admiring the carvings, and then sat on the steps of the tank for a leisurely look at some of the soaring gopuras, absolutely covered in painted statuary. One was crowned by a massive tusked face, green but with round blue eyes. A surprised looking cow provided a mount for two figures with high crowns and multi-colored stockings. I was particularly taken with a depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of the Milk, with Mount Mandaranchal reminding me more of a bunch of grapes. I finished by wandering through the lively market selling religious paraphernalia and souvenirs. And I people watched - I saw just a scattering of other foreign tourists, most of the people crowding the walkways were Indians.

I visited the temple twice, but also took a look at Tirumalai Palace, unfortunately not as well looked after as the temple, but still impressive, with good carving and nice lines. The Gandhi Museum, on the other hand, was disappointing - just text and photos. The highlight was a schoolgirl I met outside, who interviewed me for a school project.

I had arrived in town by train, sharing a 2AC section with two couples from Rajasthan. The husbands worked for the railway, and were being transferred to Tamil Nadu, to my surprise they all complained about being in the south. The language was different. The food was different. Everything was different! Interesting - Indians getting culture shock in India. It actually seemed that I knew more about south Indian food than they did. I didn't leave by train, though, my next stop was off in the country and I arranged a car and driver for the trip.
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Old Apr 23rd, 2011, 01:09 PM
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so what is next, where will you go??
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Old Apr 23rd, 2011, 01:49 PM
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You mean in real time, not TR time? When I got tired of heat and humidity on this trip, I started thinking Scandinavia, but I'm not sure I want to pay mid-August Trans-Atlantic airfares. South America is very high on the list, and I'm also considering Eastern Europe - I'd like to revisit Ukraine and Romania, and maybe Slovakia, adding Bulgaria and some of the former Yugoslavian countries I haven't seen.
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Old Apr 24th, 2011, 11:14 AM
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So wonderfully written by such an intrepid traveler! Really look forward to your next report on either South America or Eastern Europe or wherever you go next. I am sure it will be equally entertaining.
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Old May 2nd, 2011, 07:16 AM
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Dec 31, 2010 - Jan 2, 2011 - Charmed by Chettinad

India's amazing diversity fascinates its visitors, although its inhabitants may be less pleased - remember the unhappy northerners I met on the way to Madurai? The people are as varied as the landscape, the food and the languages. In Coorg I had stayed in a B&B run by a proud Kodavu, between Madurai and Trichy I would stay with Chettiars. The Kodavu were warriors, the Chettiars were traders and bankers, whose wealth funded elaborate mansions before their trading routes closed down and their banks were nationalized after World War II.

The Chettinadu Mansion was full, so I stayed at the Bangala. Still a splurge, and not only because I took a car and driver in and out, and car, driver and guide for an informative tour. But it was New Year's Eve. My large room, with an excellent bathroom but poor seating, opened onto a fan-cooled terrace facing the open dining room across a grassy courtyard. Part of a French TV crew, filming an historical series, was in residence, and kept to themselves, but I ate my New Year's Eve dinner with the owner, a charming older woman.

My first afternoon I wandered around Karaikudi on my own, finding several nice buildings in poor shape, some not very antique-looking antiques, and a lively market. But my tour of the Chettinad region the next day was the highlight. My guide told me that the Chettiars had been sent to the region in the early 1900s by the maharajah of Madurai as traders and had done well with trade to Burma. Now some families can't maintain their houses.

Like the Kodavu, the Chettiars built ancestral houses used for special occasions. Well designed for the climate, they featured an elaborate marriage room, and side rooms to hold dowries. I loved the intricately carved teak decorations (from Burma) although the wood was covered by layers of dark polish. We also visited a temple - the Chettiars worship Shiva - where statues of horses are given to celebrate the birth of a boy. The ranks are moved back each year. I had noticed several temples in Karaikudi, each with its own tank (big, rectangular pool of water), and was interested to learn that each tank was designated for a different purpose - one for drinking, one for bathing, etc.

We finished the tour with a visit to place making tiles, where I was surprised to see how little actual color was used - just a very thin layer. I asked about the fast-drying shower floors I kept seeing, and was told they were granite. I need a new bathroom floor, but it sounds heavy.

After the tour I indulged in a massage which turned out less relaxing than I hoped. The Bangala had just opened a new swimming pool and massage room, and it really wasn't ready. The room opened right on to the pool, there was nowhere to put anything, no AC (and the fan stopped several times), no hot water and the shower didn't work... Hopefully things have improved. The pool did look very nice.
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Old May 2nd, 2011, 10:17 AM
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Thanks for continuing your report. It's south India that seems to be calling to me the most as perhaps our next trip to India.
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Old May 2nd, 2011, 07:33 PM
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yes i mean on going travel.... all of those places sound like good bets, but don't expect any bargains like asia esp. in scandanavia where prices are truly outrageous...
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Old May 5th, 2011, 01:51 PM
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Kathie - I do plan to finish it. Really... And lots of good places to go in the south, although I'm thinking northwest for my next visit.

rhkkmk - after looking at air fares I'm now considering doing "the Baltics to the Balkans" for Sept-early Nov. The fares didn't go down early enough for Scandinavia, and the fares to S.A. were higher than I expected.

Jan 2 - 4, 2011: Totally Temples

South India is known for its temples, and according to the guidebooks, its people are known for their devotion to their gods. I can attest to the magnificence of the temples, but not that south Indians are any more religious than northerners. It is true that the temples weren't short of people patiently waiting to pray, but I had no way of knowing where they were from, and I still remembered the crushing crowds in Kolkata's Kali temple during Durga Puja.

Anyway, I was in Tamil Nadu to see temples, and after my New Year's Eve diversion in Chettinad I was back on the trail, being driven past flooded fields to Trichy. Sorry, Tiruchirappalli. Really, I have no objection to the Indians erasing the colonial names of their cities, and am careful to write Kolkata and Mumbai, but did they have to come up with so many jaw breakers? And about those floods - not normal for the time of year. Hundreds had died and thousands been made homeless by unusually severe weather.

After checking in and eating lunch in Trichy I headed right out to visit the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, which Lonely Planet said would "knock [my] socks off". Sorry, Lonely Planet, but Madurai's Sri Meenakshi Amman had already done that, and Trichy's temple didn't quite measure up. It may have been a bit bigger, but its soaring gopuras boasted fewer figures and less paint, and I missed the tank whose stepped walls had provided seating with a view in Madurai. Besides being quieter, the much smaller Sri Jambukeshwara temple I visited the next day also included some excellent carving.

Of course, there's more to the temples than impressive buildings and intricate carving - they are a kaleidoscope of color and scents, inside and out. Stalls selling souvenirs and garlands line the entryways. In Madurai there was even a whole section inside devoted to stalls. There's often a temple elephant, a big draw for the kids. Here you find a small group conducting a private ceremony, there a statue swathed in cloth of gold. The great cathedrals of Europe must have hummed with life like this when the pilgrims arrived - some still do (think Santiago, Fatima, Lourdes) but not with the same intensity of color.

When I started booking hotels for India back in August I drew a complete blank for Trichy and neighboring Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore), but when I tried again in early December I found a good price for the Grand Gardenia in Trichy. Although rather out of the center, its halal restaurant seemed a big hit with the locals, and I appreciated the spicy Chettinad cuisine after the rather bland fare at the Bangala. I also appreciated my comfortable room.

Because of the hotel problems I hadn't scheduled a stop in Thanjavur, but I arranged a car and driver for the trip onto Puducherry so that I could stop off and visit the Brihadishwara temple. Wow! A thousand years old, without the paint of the newer temples, and drop-dead gorgeous. It's easy to see how the later temples evolved from this one, but I thought the older carving much finer. It also reminded me of the Champa carvings in southeast Asia - not surprising given the trading links.

If you have to choose between Trichy and Thanjavur, go to Thanjavur, not least because for once non-Hindus are allowed in the inner sanctuary. This is apparently because the rajah of Tanjore decreed that "Harijans" (Dalits, "untouchables") would be allowed in back in 1939, and foreigners counted as untouchables. A plaque on the wall records both the event and Gandhi's appreciative comment. Sadly, even though this aspect of the caste system was outlawed in 1950, it's still an issue. I had just read an article in the local paper about access for untouchables to one of the smaller temples in Trichy.

I had thought about stopping at yet another temple, Nataraja in Chidambaram, but after Thanjuvar the skies darkened ominously, and we drove into the town through driving rain. I felt sorry for the people we passed in the countryside, who disappeared indoors or huddled under awnings. Although the rain stopped while I ate lunch, the temple wouldn't open for another hour or so, and I wasn't wild about walking around in the floods in bare feet. I chose to keep going. Perhaps I'd seen enough temples for one trip.
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Old May 9th, 2011, 02:14 PM
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Jan 4-7 - Formerly French

If Clive had lost the battle of Plassey in 1757, maybe the call center workers in Delhi and Bangalore would be speaking French instead of English. His victory gave the British East India company control of the riches of Bengal, and French imperial prospects in India never recovered. But just as relics of Portuguese ambitions in India remained on the west coast in Goa, on the east coast Puducherry (aka Pondicherry, aka Pondy) remained under French control until 1954.

I had read a lot about how Pondy was still an oasis of French culture in India - croissants and coffee, quiet, mansion-lined boulevards, and lots of shopping. I had my doubts, but was interested to see for myself, and it made a convenient stop between Trichy and Chennai.

Well, its true that a small part of Pondy isn't quite India, but it isn't France either. Most of Pondy, formerly known as the "black town", has always been Indian, the "white town" was a few blocks along the waterfront in the east. The promenade boasted the first trash cans I'd seen in India , although some had been beaten up a bit. The streets were wide and quiet, the buildings clearly colonial, the restaurants offered western food, and I never saw a cow, but I didn't need the rapacious rickshaw drivers to remind me that I was still in India.

The heritage hotel (http://colonialeheritage.com/ )I stayed at was a little more basic than I expected, but I appreciated the verandah, the high, wide bed (and the mosquito net, which I needed) and the wi-fi, which I used extensively to book for my upcoming month in southeast Asia. Unfortunately, I found both the food and the service in the western-style restaurants sub-standard, until I tried the very modern Promenade (http://sarovarhotels.com/pondicherry...romenade.shtml ). The roof-top restaurant had a good view, although rather too much wind the night I ate there, but the service and food - both western and Indian - impressed me.

I didn't do a whole lot in Pondy besides eat and stroll. I had my hair cut - much shorter than I intended, I restocked Imodium and Cortisone - that required quite a trek into "black town", and I was ecstatic to find a bookshop with second-hand English-language novels. I did visit the Catholic cathedral, the in-town branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and walked past the Sri Manakula Vinayagar temple, and got no spiritual lift from any of them.

I also had interesting chat with an Indian woman who worked for the Ashram. She shared my table at the sea-front Le Cafe, where I was surprised, and rather horrified, to realize that she was never served. I was also surprised by her rationale for the dirt so prevalent in India: "it's a tropical country".
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Old May 24th, 2011, 09:25 AM
  #235  
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Status - longer gap there than I intended, but I've been busy planing the next trip... I finally booked the long distance flights this weekend - New York to Helsinki at the end of August and Budapest to Washington at the beginning of November. After a couple of weeks in the Baltics I plan to fly to Budapest and go south through Serbia to pick up a tour of Bulgaria. Then I'll wander through Albania and the rest of the Balkans.

Jan 8-9 - Farewell to India

If I had known that many people headed straight to Chennai airport from Pondy, instead of stopping off in the city, I would have followed their example. I wasn't wild about Chennai the first time I visited, and even less so this time. I would have avoided one last tussle with an Indian driver, and being booted from my comfortable-sounding hotel to an isolated annex.

I had the driver, rather than taking a bus, because I wanted to stop on the way in Kanchipuram to visit a few more temples. And I have to say that the wonderful carving in Devarajaswami was worth the detour. Kailasanatha is much older, dating back to the 7th century, but it was Devarajaswami that captivated me. Unfortunately, the day just went down hill from there.

Lunch was an uninspiring buffet and the drive to Chennai took longer than I had expected, through flat and boring scenery. I had already had a couple of fights with my driver - no, I wasn't going to the airport, no, we were going the wrong way to get to the temple I wanted to see - and now he had no idea where to find my hotel, and I had trouble finding where I had written down the phone number. Yelling at me didn't speed the search, but did significantly reduce his tip.

I had booked a studio apartment at the Malles Manotaa through agoda.com. The place looked good on the website, but I never saw an apartment. Instead I was driven to an office building several streets away, which I was surprised to find included a bedroom and bath. It was dark, tired, and isolated. Although the young man detailed to look after me was most solicitous, I was not happy. An expedition to the nearby Pondy Bazaar didn't help - it really wasn't worth risking life and limb crossing the roads to get there.

I didn't like Chennai any better the next day, although after a poor breakfast delivered to my room the taxi was at least on time. The only bright spot was the Kingfisher Airlines representative, in a red jacket, who met me at the kerb and escorted me through security and up to the correct check-in desk. I had had some doubts about dogster's reports on Kingfisher service, but it was all true. The airport rather let the side down, though, looking older and dingier than I remembered.

Kingfisher served an excellent-for-airlines-lunch, and I had an interesting chat with an Indian woman, married to a Sri Lankan, who had the seat next to me. But as we crossed a narrow coastal strip and descended towards Colombo airport over a broad lagoon, I was more than ready to move on from India.
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Old May 24th, 2011, 11:35 AM
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Alas! You did have some bad luck with hotels and with drivers. But the temples sound wonderful.
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Old May 24th, 2011, 01:13 PM
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thursday--During your fall trip to the Baltics, if you start yearning for India, stop in at Sue's Indian Raja in Vilnius for some perfectly decent Indian food. I was very pleasantly surprised. (We felt we had to support anyone who was running an Indian restaurant in potato-engulfed Lithuania.)
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Old May 24th, 2011, 01:25 PM
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Kathie - the temples were magnificent. Some photos of them are on my recent blog posts - http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com

Marija - thanks for the suggestion, but I visited Vilnius - and loved it - in 2004, and will be skipping Lithuania this time. Something had to give... Am currently thinking Helsinki with day trips, ferry to Tallinn, bus to Tartu, bus to Riga.

All - if anyone else is still reading.. I was going to just keep going with Sri Lanka on this thread, but it's now rather long. Should I start a new one so the Sri Lanka posts will be easier to find?
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Old May 24th, 2011, 01:42 PM
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Yes still here and enjoying your adventure and posts. A new Sri Lanka thread would be nice and might be easier for someone doing research to find.

Aloha!
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Old May 24th, 2011, 03:42 PM
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Still reading and enjoying your adventure. I think starting a new thread would be better than continuing here.
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