Our first trip to India in 2014 opened my eyes to a world where everything was entirely different to everything I knew. Ever since, it was India that I longed to return to more than anywhere else.
The memories of squeezing our way through tightly packed, hectic streets in a daze; by the vast array of colours, smells and sounds.
Of falling asleep with my head on my backpack on the crowded trains, and waking up to the sound of men selling ‘chai, chai, chaiii’.
The everlasting noise, no matter where you are, or what time. The rushes of adrenaline just by wandering outside.
So in 2018-2019 we returned to India for a second time.
This time we hoped to explore as much of India as we could, with a time frame of around 3 months – from the very south of Tamil Nadu to the Himalayan Mountain range in the North. I felt excited but apprehensive at the same time. Would we love it as much a second time round? Would it be as exhilarating and captivating? And what if we got as sick as last time?
But that’s not a reason to not travel somewhere. And what I learnt the most from our time in India is that it’s the expectations not being met, which creates the experience itself (rather than the one that was so precisely planned by myself beforehand). Our plans and visions didn’t always go to plan on this trip to India, and this is something I struggled with at times.
India was country number 15 on our trip around the world. And with all the daily challenges of travel in India, we soon realised we were starting to feel worn out. But along the way, we truly deepened our understanding of the diverse traditions and ways of life, the religions, history and various cuisine throughout vast parts of the country, and we left with hundreds of stories – some really wonderful, some so bizarre that I still find unbelievable.
Here’s the story of our second trip to India, between October 2018 and January 2019. I have included the itinerary and the main costs too. It’s a very long post, so I have split it into 2 parts:
- Part 1: This post – Maharashtra, Karnataka & Tamil Nadu. (Mumbai, Pune, Hampi, Bangalore, Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Puducherry, Madurai, Tiruchirappalli & Ooty)
- Part 2: Coming soon – Kerala, Hyderabad & North India
** CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC – Keep yourself and other communities safe – Check the latest information on the risk from COVID-19 for India on the TravelHealthPro website **
Please note, at the time of writing, £1 is equal to 99 Indian Rupees
Mumbai – 1 Night
It was midnight when we landed in Mumbai, but you wouldn’t think it from the huge swarms of people moving in all directions. We were instantly transported back to the same India that we had visited 5 years previously. Where memories of the morning rush hour commute in London suddenly felt quiet and calm.
Typically, there were no ATM’s inside the airport which had any cash in them, so we had to make our way to one outside.
It was now time to get an Uber – an exciting addition since our last trip to India. But the security guards would not let us back inside the airport (which is where the Uber desk was).
This wasn’t a good start, because last time we got a regular taxi in Mumbai we got scammed about 5 times the price and were dropped off in the wrong place. But thankfully, we had learnt from that, and we followed the signs directing us to a pre-paid taxi counter. After a short wait we were in a taxi (just 190 rupees for 3km) driving through the dark, densely populated back streets of Mumbai to our hotel – the FabHotel Lotus Grand Andheri (£22 for 1 night).
As we had already visited Mumbai before, we only spent 1 night here to sleep. But if it’s your first time in India I would recommend spending at least 2 or 3 nights in Mumbai – We recommend the Seashore hotel in Colaba.
Pune – 1 week
We had pre-booked a train from Mumbai’s ‘Lokmanya Tilak Terminus’ for 320 rupees each and just a few hours later we arrived in Pune.
Pune is a large sprawling city that screams out old and new. Ancient and modern. It feels like ‘New India’.
What to do in Pune:
Aside from the globally famous ‘Osho Mediatation Resort’ (which we decided did not sound like our thing), there’s the peaceful Aga Khan Palace, which served as the prison for Mahatma Gandhi from Aug 1942 to May 1944, and the busy and less relaxing Laxmi Road market. You could also visit the Blades of Glory Cricket Museum – the worlds largest cricket museum, if you’re a big cricket fan (like Shaun).
It was Diwali, so the markets were hectic and swarming with people. The streets were vibrant, the houses illuminated, and the second the sun goes down… fireworks exploding everywhere. Quite literally, one was thrown in our direction and exploded right next to us.
Where to sleep & eat in Pune:
There is a lovely suberb in the North East of Pune where we based ourselves in an apartment called ‘Laxmi Happy Home’ where we had a private room for £12 a night. There were some lovely cafe’s and restaurants nearby (Yogi Tree and German Bakery). The apartment is also very close to the ‘Osho Mediatation Resort’, which is why a lot of tourists visit Pune.
Onward travel from Pune…
The rest of our time in Pune (when we wern’t avoiding exploding fireworks) we were queuing up in various lines in Pune train station, attempting to book a train ticket.
Diwali meant it was even more difficult than normal to get train tickets. Day after day we visited the station, we were instructed to queue in countless lines at various offices. We were told we could apply and wait for an emergency ticket via post (?!). We even tried our old trick of subtly mentioning the ‘foreign tourist quota’, but every day we failed to get a ticket. We eventually surrendered with booking a train. Instead, we booked an overnight bus to Hospet (near Hampi). The bus company charged our card twice, just to make things more fun…
So last time we took a night bus in India, we slept lying down in a tiny coffin sized box. Holding onto my tummy tightly trying not to be sick for the duration of the journey through the Thar Desert to Rajasthan, we were only let off the bus once to wee at the side of the bus, after begging the driver to please stop, with just my scarf wrapped around me for some privacy. I vowed never to take a night bus in India again, but here we are again.
We waited for our bus at a scruffy little station by the side of the road. A young homeless girl bounced on Shaun’s knee happily, whilst I was just praying that this bus wouldn’t be like that last one.
It wasn’t that bad at all, really. To my delight there were no coffins on the bus, this time. The ticket’s had cost us £24 each after all (4 times the price of the train). The seats even reclined (well, mine did, amusingly Shaun’s didn’t…).
The bus drove 550 km and we arrived in Hospet, in the state of Karnataka in South Western India, around 12 hours later.
Hampi – 4 Nights
The tuk-tuk ride from Hospet to Hampi took around half an hour, along bumpy dusty roads, but you know when you’ve arrived in Hampi – because suddenly it looks like you have arrived in a majestic Indian version of the Flinstones, and the stressful, heaving cities are a distant memory.
Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Karnataka, India. It was once the capital of the historical Hindu Vijayanagara Empire. Hampi is now a site of over 1600 ancient remains from the grand 14th century city.
What to do in Hampi
In Hampi, spend your days exploring the huge abundance of ancient temple ruins, and make sure you don’t miss the sun setting over the bizarre landscape of Hampi, with miles and miles of boulder heaps as far as the eye can see.
According to Hindu Mythology, Hampi is believed to be a mythical monkey kingdom. Two monkey brothers, Vali and Sugreeva, were at war over the throne of the kingdom. And the boulders strewn all over Hampi are what they threw at each other during the battles.
There are mischievous monkeys everywhere in Hampi, they will try to grab your food and drink so be careful!
Where to sleep & eat in Hampi:
There’s a river that runs through the middle of Hampi, the Southern side is the side we stayed on. The other side, the Northern side, is ‘Hippe island’, often described as a ‘backpacker’s delight’. I probably don’t need to say any more. If you just want to visit Hippie island for the day, you can take a boat over for 100 rupees.
We stayed one night in ‘Kiran Guesthouse’ on the Southern side which cost only 800 rupees for one night. It was very cheap, so good for the more budget conscious travellers.
After a painful experience for poor Shaun – involving him using a towel covered in red stinging ants after his shower (not the fault of the guest house may I add… he should have been more careful), we then moved to ‘New Laksmi Tourist Home’ (1500 rupees a night) which was a little more mid-range, as we wanted AC and hot water.
Hampi had some fantastic restaurants, we ate every morning and night in ‘Mango Tree’ and we had many nice lunches cooling down with a glass of mango juice in ‘Gopi rooftop restaurant’.
Following the train ticket failure in Pune, we now had an extremely organised route planned, with all of our train tickets booked in advance online. We were now heading for the large Southern state of Tamil Nadu. But with the distances being so huge, we had 2 of India’s biggest, loudest cities to get through first.
Bangalore – 3 nights
Bangalore, the capital of the state of Karnataka, is a modern city and often called the ‘silicon valley of India’, as it is home to a large number of software companies.
We had a night train booked to Bangalore for 300 rupees each, we planned to spend 3 nights in Bangalore, because we don’t like moving around too quickly, but I think 2 nights/ 2 full days would have been plenty.
What to do in Bangalore
Definitely visit the Bangalore flower market, this was our favourite sight in Bangalore. Head down early in the morning, there are many great photo opportunities.
Bangalore is a modern city, so we took advantage of this – we enjoyed walking in the large parks, going to Starbucks, we went to a shopping mall and to the cinema (which was an interesting experience, everyone had to stand up to sing the national anthem, and there was an interval mid way through the movie, which we thought was a great idea!).
Bangalore was still a busy and hectic city and I missed the calm we had experienced in Hampi.
Where to sleep & eat in Bangalore:
We stayed in a hotel called ‘Hotel Grand Suites’. The room was nice and only cost 1100 rupees per night. It was close to the station so a very handy location when our train arrived at 4am!
We ate most evenings in a restaurant called ‘MTR’. My favourite time of the day was our evening walks to MTR for a big yummy Bangalore style masala dosa.
Chennai – 3 nights
After Bangalore, we had booked ourselves a fancy and expensive ‘AC Chair Car’ train to Chennai for 500 rupees each. Extremely scruffy from it’s exterior, but we were pleasantly surprised once on board.
Chennai, located on the eastern bay of Bengal, is the capital city of the southern state of Tamil Nadu – A state we really grew to love.
Chennai was a challenging start to Tamil Nadu for me. With it’s sweltering heat, huge population and congested roads, I tried to embrace the experience, but I was struggling. I know it was the wrong mind -frame to be in, but even going out for dinner was now hard work, despite the food being incredibly yummy!
Where to sleep & eat in Chennai:
We stayed in a basic room in Le Stay Inn which only cost 650 rupees (!) per night. For that price, it was perfect.
We ate at 2 yummy restaurants close to our hotel (both delicious yet equally chaotic) – Adyar Ananda Bhavan (A2B) Restaurant – definitely recommend the Masala Dosa. And Ratna Cafe – to try their famous Idly Sambar!
What to do in Chennai
Channai perhaps lacks impressive world-famous tourist attractions, so it involves more time and effort to really dive into and understand as a place.
Chennai does have some really impressive temples, such as the very active and ancient 7th century ‘Kapaleeshwarar Temple’, built for Lord Shiva, and the peaceful ‘Sri Ramakrishna Math’; which is open to all to worship, pray and meditate. We also spent a few hours at the Government Museum to escape the crowded streets. But if you want to dive in and go somewhere really busy, head to Chennai’s main shopping district, Theagaraya Nagar.
I’m sure there’s much more to Chennai than these places, but we were struggling mentally now – The effort of visiting tourist attractions was feeling like a chore, we were finding it hard to embrace the experience and learn about the cultures whilst being hassled so much outside temples, and the adrenaline of just going for a walk through the busy streets wasn’t getting us high anymore.
India’s big cities had really taken it out of us, we needed a break and to return in a better mind frame. So we booked a flight to Sri Lanka.
2 weeks later…
Tamil Nadu continued…
Mahabalipuram – 2 nights
2 weeks later we were back in India, refreshed after our ‘holiday’ in Sri Lanka, prepared for whatever India was going to throw at us this time around. We landed in Chennai, and got a taxi straight down the coast to ‘Mahabs’.
What to do in Mahabs + where to sleep & eat
Mahabalipuram (Mahabs for short) is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of 7th- and 8th-century Hindu temples and carvings. The temples can be explored by foot, make sure you wear a hat, it’s very hot! One evening we also went for a walk down the beach, filled with holidaying Indian familes, horse rides and market stalls selling bits and bobs.
We stayed in ‘Silver Moon Guest House’ which we liked, they also have a lovely cafe at the front, serving great coffee’s and breakfast. Overal Mahabs is small and not stressful. On the road we stayed on, there’s the feeling of a small ‘backpacker hub’, where shops sell the usual tibetan style backpacker clothing and restaurants sell pizza. You can easily explore all of Mahabs by foot and 1 day is probably plenty before moving a little further down the coast to Puducherry.
Puducherry – 3 nights
What to do in Pondy + where to sleep & eat
Further down the coast is Puducherry. Formerly ‘Pondicherry’, and often known as ‘Pondy’, Puducherry was under French rule until 1954. Some people still speak French and you relax in a cafe with a croissant and coffee. You can even find steak restaurants here! If you want this unusual french/ India experience, then the older part of town (the ‘French’ part of town) is where you want to base yourself, or at least be walking distance to.
We stayed in the lovely Vila Kalifie, which was in a perfect location for us, because within a few minutes walk you could either be eating croissants in ‘Baker Street’ and then taking a stroll along the promenade. Or, head to ‘Indian Delights’ for a breakfast dosa followed by the Sunday Market, a classic Indian Market experience, sweltering heat and honking bikes a plenty.
Madurai – 2 nights
From Pondy, we took a K.P.N bus to Madurai (approx. 650 rupees).
Around 8 hours later, we arrived in the ancient city of Madurai. Madurai is one of the oldest cities in all of India, otherwise known as the ‘sleepless city’ and ‘the soul’ of Tamil Nadu. Filled with energy and hustle and bustle it’s an important Indian pilgrimage centre.
What to do in Madurai
The most impressive and important of South India’s temples, the grand Meenakshi temple, was our main reason for visiting Madurai. Visited by thousands of people every day, the religion and culture was felt so strongly here, with pilgrims dressed in traditional religious wear. Cameras inside are banned and mobile phones must be left in a locker beforehand. Non hindus are permitted inside the temple, but the 2 inner sanctums of the temple were off-limits to us, but we were still able to wander around the rest of the temple and enjoy it’s impressive structures.
This was one of the strictest Hindu temples we had ever visited which made it so intriguing to me, it really highlighted the continuous active ancient set of traditions in this deeply religious part of South India.
Where to sleep & eat in Madurai:
In Madurai we stayed in Avea B&B (1450 rupees a night) which was a wonderful place with modern facilities and really helpful staff.
By now we were really starting to get into the food in Tamil Nadu and it’s abundance of delicious ‘veg restaurants’. From the giant dosas, tasty idli sambar and the vast flavours in the spectacularly colourful tiffins and thalis, served on giant banana leaves.
‘The Modern Restaurant’ was one particular restaurant that we stumbled across in Madurai and despite it’s name, to us it felt exhilaratingly traditional. It was busy, frantic and delicious – the perfect experience of a traditional Tamil lunch.
Trichy – 3 nights
Just a few hours away on an exciting train ride from Madurai is Tiruchirappalli, called ‘Trichy’ for short. We travelled in 2S Class (second seating) which is a very cheap way to travel in India. A great experience of interacting with every day locals; we had our photo taken a thousand times and we made a hundred new friends. We ate delicious spicy samosas wrapped in newspaper, which we bought through the train window at a local village stop. We got invited back to people’s homes. We took a thousand photos back. It’s train journeys like this that really make you realise how true it is to enjoy the journey when travelling, not just the destination.
What to do in Trichy
Our main reason was to visit Trichy was to visit the enormous and colourful Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple compound – the largest temple compound in India, with 21 impressive towers and 89 shrines and the whole thing occupying over 150 acres. It is said to be the largest (functioning) Hindu temple in the world! Which was especially impressive.
We also climbed up the ‘Rock Fort Tower’ for views over the city of Trichy.
Where to sleep & eat in Trichy:
In Trichy we stayed in the Sri Maharaja Residency (approx. 1400 rupees per night). The room was very pleasant, but the restaurant adjacent to the hotel ‘Saivam – Dimora’ was the main highlight. This restaurant served a huge variety of very tasty cuisine. One of our favourite memories of Trichy was eating the delicious food in this restaurant!
Ooty (3 nights)
Ooty (officially called Udhagamandalam) otherwise known as ‘Queen of the Hill Stations’ or the ‘Switzerland of India’, is a hill station town situated in Nilgiri Mountains; at an altitude of 2240m, it has with cool temperatures and is surrounded by lush green hills, beautiful countryside and tea plantations.
To get to Ooty, we firstly took a train to Coimbatore. We stayed overnight in Coimbatore (FabHotel Sam) before taking a 6.30am minibus from Coimbatore directly to Ooty which we booked online with Red Bus (473 rupees).
What to do in Ooty + where to sleep & eat
Aside from looking to escape the sweltering Tamil heat, we were looking to explore the nature around the town of Ooty, so we hired a fantastic local guide arranged through our guest house (1500 rupees for the day) to spend a day trekking, exploring the local countryside and learning about life in the villages.
We met friendly locals along the way, and our guide was very knowledgable about the local area; previously working in one of the tea plantations himself. We stopped for (a really delicious) lunch in a little building at the side of the road in a small village, our lunch was served traditional Tamil style – on a banana leaf and eaten with your hands.
In Ooty we stayed in ‘Reflections Guest House’, which had a lovely garden and it was only a short walk into town. Hot water was available (definitely needed in Ooty) – but only for a few hours in the morning.
The Niligri Mountain Railway (Toy Train)
From Ooty (Udhagamandalam) we took the Nilgiri Mountain Railway back down the mountain to the final stop Mettupalayam (just 145 rupees each) . The railway was opened in 1899 by the British and is a Unesco World Heritage site since 2005.
The train winds down the steep mountains through the lush green landscape. At Coonor station, the diesel engine was replaced with a steam one!
From Mettupalayam, we took a public bus to Coimbatore, where we had an overnight stop (in FabHotel Thaai) for our final night in Tamil Nadu, before heading to the next state; Kerala.
We really enjoyed our experience travelling in Tamil Nadu and the 3 weeks we spent there we still remember fondly. Tamil Nadu is often overlooked by more popular Indian states such as Rajasthan & Goa… but we really enjoyed experiencing its deeply religious & huge Hindu temples, its impressive Nilgiri mountains, sweating our way around its busy and honking mad towns & cities, plus trying lots of new vegetarian foods.
During these 5 weeks in India we spent a total of £540.6 per person / £16.2 per person per day. This includes all daily expenses – travel, accommodation, food/drink, activities. It does not include the price of our flights in to India, our insurance or our visa.
At times I felt myself being pulled between emotions on this trip, particularly battling between: 1) the never-ending daily challenges of travel in India and the annoyance of my plans not going to plan, and 2) the enjoyment of immersing myself in the experience – to learn about the traditions, values and ways of life, whilst connecting with the people and understanding the importance of other cultures.
Through these experiences, the good and the bad; the moments when you experience a surprising and wonderful cultural experience which will stay with you forever, to the moments that don’t match up to your expectation. All of these moments and encounters are what makes the overall experience of the trip, it makes the memories stronger and the learnings more profound, to gain a deeper understanding of what’s truly important during our travels, in any destination that we visit.
End of Part 1. Part 2 (Kerala, Hyderabad & North India) coming soon!