07.01.2014 - 26.01.2014 34 °C
We were sad to leave Goa, even though it’s not like we’re going home and back to work or anything, but onwards to more adventures, yet sad we were, we *really* like Agonda and had had such a lovely relaxing, happy week there; the best first week in January ever! We left there on another sleeper bus, this one just us and tens of other western tourists, Goa to Hampi not a journey that Indians take it seems. It was an interesting journey, some police got onboard at the state border with Karnataka to check if anyone was drinking alcohol (different laws in different states, see), they ended up arguing with a group of Russians who were drinking spirits from plastic cups (typical Russians, we did snigger from behind our curtain!) The Russian folks suggested if they finished the bottle there and then they would then not be taking open bottles into Karnataka, amusing response we thought... Police not so much amused however and made them pay a few hundred rupees ‘fine’ (bribe?), well this brought entertainment to our journey at least.
But then, onto Hampi - known for its amazing landscape, and it was just that, it feels like a Flintstones Theme Park, large pinkey-orange rocks and boulders either side of a lovely green river with temples dotted about all around. Here was a bit of a hippy-vibe overload, it was like an alternative traveler universe with lots of dreadlocks, juggling, smoking and the like (despite Rach having had dreads for 8 years and spending many an hour in Manchester’s Aflecks Palace, even she has never seen so many dreadlocks and so much tie-dye in one place!). In summary, Hampi is really just a collection of rocks and temples, but it just has to be seen, the landscape is wonderful, plus the main attraction is simply ‘the vibe’. We had there our cheapest room yet at just 200 rupees (£2) – a semi-detached thatched cottage, well not as fancy as it sounds, really just a room with a mattress on the floor, mozzie net and a shelf, toilet and cold tap ‘shower’ outside, but it suited us well and was in a lovely setting amongst palm trees and rice paddies.
Hiring bicycles on the second day was a great way to get around and explore the fascinating landscape, even though it was sweltering. We had been recommended a visit to a nearby lake, so a swim to cool down was very welcome; we were somewhat alarmed by warnings around the lake to beware of crocodiles, but we’d been told it was the thing to do there and had we had passed lots of other groups swimming, diving in from rocks etc, so we did; we found a private little ‘beach’ on some large rocks and had cooling swims in the lovely green water, it was very nice indeed.
In the evenings we went to watch the sun go down from a point on rocky boulders that look out over the lovely river, with temples in the background and the late afternoon sun putting this whole fascinating landscape into a beautiful golden glow with a live music soundtrack provided by the gathered traveler-types, a few drums, guitars and even a trombone, this was very cool. Overall Hampi is a must see place in India and totally provides the serene hippy-traveler vibe that you imagine goes with backpacking around India.
Our next stop was Mysore, (yes, it is very tempting to add ‘arse’…), it was a late addition to the itinerary but to break the journey between there and Kerala it was either there or Bangaluru (Bangalore). Despite reading that Bangaluru literally means ‘town of boiled beans’, which was pretty funny, we figured that having seen a few large Indian cities, we could imagine what it would be like, and we heard Mysore was more interesting. Well, it was a fairly nice city but a bit dull after Hampi and Goa. It seemed to us a little like the Manchester of India, a good place to live probably (friendly locals and decent standard of living - it was very clean by Indian standards, orderly, with nice areas such as nature park and lake) but not an awful lot to see in terms of tourist attractions. Notably it had a surprising number of cinemas (seemed like one on every corner), including one next door to our room that was so loud we could hear the whole film from our bed. The Maharaja’s Palace is the main thing to see in Mysore, it was worth going to look at and even though it was heaving, mostly with Indian tourists, and was also quite spectacular at night when it is lit by 100,000 lightbulbs (though only at weekends, and only for about an hour). The market place was good for a meander through, with the usual vibrant, noisy atmosphere filled with colourful, fragrant stalls of fruit/veg, incense, flowers, spices... Apparently you haven’t seen South India till you’ve been to Mysore, so there we are, we’ve been; we didn’t dislike it, but feel there would be no need to return, if we’re honest.
From there it was on to Kerala, the state famous for its lush landscape and serene boat rides through the backwaters. First stop was Cochin, an old colonial port town (Dutch, British and Portuguese!). Its streets and buildings were pretty, the atmosphere relaxed, but the grubby beach with big tankers passing close by made Goan beaches seem like a far-away paradise. We wandered around and spotted the famous Chinese fishing nets (basically big bamboo structures constructed into a lever system which take 4-5 men to work in order to heave the nets out). We hired bikes, cycled around an area called Jew Town, with its own Synagogue and visited the Dutch Palace (not really a Palace, an old building once renovated by the Dutch and now a museum dedicated to Kerala’s history). One thing we really noticed here was the heat and humidity, even after 4 months in the sub-continent we could tell that we had now reached the furthest south we have been (ever, in the world!), very sweaty indeed.
After Chochin we took a local bus to Alleppey, we were stood up squished against our bags for the 2-hour journey, but this is nothing to us now! We had taken a recommendation for a place to stay from an Irish guy we got to know in Hampi, place leading straight onto a nice quiet part of the beach, with hammocks and palm trees. It was a bit fancier than our usual level of room but it was lovely for a few days. The sea there as very different from up the coast in Goa, not too swim-friendly with swirling currents and mad, ever changing surface, when we sat by it in the evening we could feel blasts of warm air coming in with the waves, quite scary actually, we only went as far as we could still stand up and only for a cool down during the day.
The ultimate Kerala experience however is a tour of the backwaters, this is really what we came to Allepey for (Goa is for beaches and swimming, Kerala is for touring its lush backwaters). We took a day trip that included a local ferry ride out of town before switching to narrow canoes that allowed us to travel the smallest and narrowest of the waterways, passing local villages and stopping for both breakfast and lunch at gorgeous water-side settings. This was an experience that met and exceeded our expectations, a definite tick in the box of ‘things to do before you die’!
We left Allepey happy, and headed to beachside resort of Varkala, traveling by ferry through the wider waterways, a relaxing way to travel, even though at 8 hours it was almost 3 times the journey time that a bus would’ve been... Varkala was good, really gorgeous turquoise sea and a great beach below a palm fringed cliff with good swimming, it was very touristy though, and expensive with it for some things. Still it was an easy, relaxing couple of days.
From there we went the furthest south it is possible to go on the Indian sub-continent (though not quite the southern-most point of India which is claimed by one of the Andaman Islands, which are actually off the coast of Myanmar). While we knew there was not a lot to see in the town of Kanyakumari, we felt it would make a poignant end to our Indian journey if we visited the southern-most tip, the Cape of Comorin. It’s true, there is not much to keep you there, but is was special, this is the point at which you can watch the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal to the East and set over the Arabian Sea to the West, and looking out to the south is the Indian Ocean where next stop is Antarctica. We were very glad to have seen this, though it was incredibly windy and strangely part of the ‘promenade looked rather like Blackpool (well Cleveleys actually!). To pass out our mere 25 hours there we had to take a very relaxed approach to visiting the town’s other sights including a museum about the ‘Wandering Monk’ and a Ghandi memorial where his ashes were taken for two weeks before immersion in the sea, so the memorial looks up towards the entire country he is considered father of. It is quite literally the end of the line though, the very end of the Indian rail network, from here it is possible to take India's longest single rail journey all the way up to Jammu & Kasmir, should you like trains and have 4 days to spare...
A fitting end this was, but not quite the end... Our final stop in India is the French colonial city of Puducherry (previously and better-known as Pondicherry). We arrived very early in the morning, having had to get off the train from Varkala at the grim hour of 3.30am at Villapuram Junction (of course this would be only one of three trains to be on time during our entire journey around India, when we have to get up and off at such an ungodly hour!). There we wait 2 hours for the first train to Pondicherry. Slightly sleepily we wandered towards the French Quarter to find a place to call home for two nights. We luckily stumbled upon a lovely French style ‘heritage hotel’ with nice rooms and a fine wooden terrace overlooking a ‘boulevard’ (when I say boulevard I mean a wide-ish cobbled street with trees and hardly any traffic but, still India, with a few smelly areas and litter scattered around). We’d heard of the main promenade by the sea and its apparent resemblance to Southern France’s Nice (and we’d also seen Rick Stein’s India programme, as well as having read Life of Pi) so we were quite excited walking down to it. In reality it is just a stretch of seaside front that in Europe would seem quite dull. But to us, at this point in our travels, it did seem like a bit of familiarity that we had not had for 4 months. We walked down it, found a supermarket that sold cheese (not slime in a can that passes for cheese elsewhere in India) and yoghurt – our first dairy real products of this sort since home – plus a beer shop selling port and beer. Happy toasting to the culmination of our Indian travels! We spent the evening eating blue cheese, drinking port and chatting in French to Indian boys from Varanassi. It was quite surreal.
So onwards it is to Thailand. India has been an amazing experience – alien in so many ways but fascinating, colourful and downright bizarre. We will both miss it. But at the same time we are ready to move on and see what the countries across the Bay of Bengal have to offer. SE Asia, here we come!