AMAZING FOOD AND MONSOON FUN: Southern India reflections and how to

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India is a massive and diverse country, so it’s hard to define it as a whole. We visited the south of the country over three weeks, and in many ways we barely scratched the surface.

India is loud, vibrant, difficult and appealing all at once. From the luscious green landscape of Kerala to the microbreweries of Bangalore and the hippie lifestyle of Pondicherry, there’s something for everyone – you can spend a month lazying by the beach or joining the local crowds in hipster cafes.

The pull of India is undeniable. Colonial architecture, amazing food and the unstoppable activity are all there to drag you in.

The people we met along the way were really friendly, from the waiters who warned us about spicy dishes to the tuk-tuk driver who asked if we wanted to drive instead, we felt really welcome – everyone seemed to want to make sure we were having a great time; and of course we were.

And obviously India is not an easy country – there’s poverty, crazy traffic and so much noise everywhere. But amid it all, there’s beauty, culture and tradition, temples and gods creating the fabric of a country that really is a world in itself.

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HOW TO DO IT:

Itinerary planning:

Once we decided we’d travel to the south of India, we set out mapping where we wanted to go. I used this tour by G Adventures as the basis of our trip.

  • We did:
    – Mumbay – 3 days
    – Bengalore – 3 days
    – Chennai – 1 day
    – Pondicherry – 4 days
    – Madurai – 2 days
    – Amritapuri ashram – 2 days
    – Kochi – 3 days
    – Mumbai – 3 days

This was definitely a comprehensive itinerary, and although it was busy, as a way of getting to know many places it was the right balance.

Chennai didn’t really have anything to offer, but it’s the easiest starting point to visiting Tamil Nadu. We had a great time in Pondicherry and could have stayed for longer, but four days is definitely enough to see it well. Kochi was another favourite with its easygoing colonial vibe and lush greenery. And of course Mumbai is a whole world.

But the main advantage of our itinerary was that we saw many places off the beaten track – most people I know visit Delhi, the Taj Mahal and Goa. And although I would love to visit those places too, it was great to see a different side of India – one in which many of the stereotypes didn’t hold true.

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Trains:

Travelling by train in India is very popular, and because we were covering a lot of ground, it seemed like a good option. Tickets are really cheap too.

We did a lot of research before buying tickets and booked everything online – Seat 61 was a great help, as purchasing tickets can be a long process.

We took three trains, one during the day and two sleepers. All were good – we chose second class as recommended and it was comfortable and had air conditioning.

Trains were mostly on time, although we had a one hour delay once.

Stations don’t always have clear signage, but both on trains or at the platform people were helpful and gave us the information we needed.

Travelling by train is also a good way of seeing the Indian countryside passing through your window.

Because of the way people drive in India, given the chance I’d always prefer a train over a taxi. Alternatively, for long distances there were good options for cheap flights.

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Transportation in cities:

India is famous for its chaotic traffic, and we saw that was the case in big cities. Public transportation is not always available, although you can get the occasional bus or metro. In smaller cities, sometimes things are within walking distance, but in general that is not the case.

Most of the time you will rely on tuk-tuks or taxis. Tuk-tuks are easily available everywhere and are good fun. In Mumbai and Bangalore there were restrictions on where they could go (and sometimes the drivers will simply turn you down!).

Tuk-tuks area cheap, but you need to agree on a price before you get in – Mumbai was the only place where they used meters.

Taxis in India are mostly app-based. Aside from Uber, Ola is a local alternative, but you need an Indian mobile number to use it. Hotels and restaurants are generally also able to arrange transportation if needed.

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Visa:

You can get an e-visa online, which is a good system. You complete the form and pay the £41 fee on this website. The site has a few glitches, so you may need to try a few times before your application goes through.

A couple of days later you get an email confirmation. All you need to do is print that off and bring it with you to the airport.

Money:

As expected, India is really cheap, and in many ways that is part of the appeal. You can get a cheap meal for £1, a hotel room for £10 and an outfit for £5. In shops and markets it can be hard to bargain as often the starting price is lower than what you wanted to pay (you should haggle anyway though, as it’s the way to do it).

There were three of us travelling and the daily kitty of £20 per person was more than enough to cover everything apart from accommodation (some days we spent only half of it).

In bigger cities, however, we found that prices vary much more, and in Mumbai you could find lots of high end restaurants with prices just a bit lower than those in the UK – so it’s best to save these for a special occasion.

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Weather – travelling during the monsoon season:

We travelled in July, which is supposed to be very hot and wet as it’s monsoon season. Because of that, we decided to travel south – the region is supposed to be really beautiful then.

What we found is that the monsoon wasn’t really what we expected. In Tamil Nadu we got no rain at all. In Kerala we got the occasional storm but that always passed quickly. Mumbai was also pretty much dry.

As for the heat, in some places it did get over 35 degrees, but restaurants and shops tend to have air conditioning or fans, so it wasn’t that bad. Many of the places we visited had a maximum temperature of around 30 degrees, which is hot but not unbearable.

So travelling during monsoon season turned out just fine – and we had the bonus of avoiding the tourist crowds.

People:

You always hear a lot about how much hassle you get in India, but our experience was different. Nowhere did we get much hassle at all – in Madurai we had a few pushy sellers, but that was very minor.

Mostly, when people spoke to us they wanted to ask us for a photo or to chat about our experience in India. People were also very helpful and forthcoming when they thought we needed directions or some guidance.

Yoga and Ayurveda:

We wanted to take advantage of being in India to do some yoga, and we managed to do so in Pondicherry (at Rishi) and Kochi (at Sivananda).

We also managed to have ayurvedic massage in Pondicherry (at Keralaa Ayurveda).

What we found though is that those weren’t as easily available as we expected – we really needed to do some research in order to find the places, and there weren’t lots of options.

With the yoga, we were the only people to show up to the public classes we did, which was great for us but also showed it was definitely low season.

But all we did was definitely great fun and amazing experiences.

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Food and Drink:

Food in India is famously impressive, but it surpassed my expectations. We ate lots of different types of Indian food, both from the north and south of the country, and at varying prices. Pretty much everywhere we ate very well.

Where we ate Western food, it was also delicious – particularly the desserts (so much cake!) were amazing. People always flagged if they thought something may be too spicy for us which was good.

And of course India is a vegetarian’s paradise, so there were always tons of options for me to choose from. I was travelling with friends who have a bit more expensive taste than me, so maybe because of that I didn’t get a case of Delhi belly at all!

Our experience of food in India was a rich part of our trip – from cool cafes to traditional thalis everything added value to our journey.

Drinking in India can be a bit trickier – in some areas there are strict regulations and it can be hard to find a bar, or you may be restricted to only a couple of places serving Kingfisher.

Big cities are easier, with bars and restaurants offering good selections of drinks. These are not super cheap though, so alcohol can have a big impact on your daily budget.

The best place we found for drinks was Bangalore, which has a vibrant craft brewery scene with lots of cool bars serving good beer to the local crowd. Indian wine is available in some upmarket places, but it’s usually expensive.

Shopping:

I knew India was going to be cheap and although I’m not one for shopping, I expected to be tempted. Prices can really be insanely cheap, but I didn’t always find things as appealing as I thought I might.

Shopping for sarees was the only thing that was a bit overwhelming as there were countless options everywhere. I still bought a few things but nothing over the top.

We also found some upmarket shops with more unique options (Fabindia was our favourite). Those still had reasonable prices but were less conducive to a shopping spree.

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