Places visited: Tiruchirpalli, Thanjuvar, Madurai and Kanyakumari.
India, never has a country toyed with my emotions so much every day. You go from being happy, to frustrated, happy again, amazed, annoyed, feeling lost, happy, sad, wanting to get out to never wanting to leave, all in the space of 24 hours. The head wobble for me is fantastic, if not sometimes confusing, everything that is good is greeted with a head wobble, but when ordering food a head wobble means yes, even if it looks like no. Take note of the eyebrows and speed of the wobble, the higher the eyebrows and the faster the wobble, the better things are! The growing money crisis has made things tough. Everyday you can only withdraw 2000 Rupees (£23) from a cash machine, sometime you can do this more then once if you have a foreign card. However the issue is finding a working ATM, and when you do being prepared to queue for a long time, to only be able to withdraw one note, which nobody has change for. The government really didn’t think through what would happen when they took the 500 and 1000 Rupee notes our of circulation. Anyway that’s enough of my moaning, let me tell you about my time in the mysterious subcontinent of India.
In my previous 6 months travel I haven’t bothered with any of the Lonely Planet guide books, I’ve found my own way around, basically winging it as that’s what I like to do. This way you can find some undiscovered gems and can really get off the tourist route. Without the Lonely Planet guide book for India I would be well and truly lost.
Arriving in Tiruchirappali we queued with everyone else to get through customs. If you’ve secured yourself a 30 day tourist e-visa you have to go to a different section, however we had a 6 month multiple entry visa so this didn’t apply to us. After collecting our bags we looked to change up some money we had left over from Malaysia, there is an exchange counter in the airport and we ended up losing £36, however we didn’t have a choice. It was almost a blessing in disguise, if we hadn’t of done this I think we may have been on the street that night. We caught a taxi from the airport to our hotel for 400 Rupees (£4.60), which we almost definitely overpaid for, however I was already feeling out of my depth and just wanted to get to the hotel. Apparently bus K1 leaves from outside the airport to the Central Bus Station but I honestly wasn’t ready to attempt this yet. I’d already been up for hours and it was only 09:00.
The 2 main things to do in Tiruchirappali are to visit the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, a short 150 Rupee (£1.70) rickshaw journey from the centre, and the Rock Fort which is easily seen and within walking distance. We decided to head to the temple first and experience our first Hindu Temple. The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple has 49 separate shrines dedicated to Vishnu and the area it covers is so large it feels like its own town once inside the walls. Non-Hindus are not allowed in some sections and the only money we paid was to leave our shoes in the cloakroom for 5 Rupees, however you can just pop them in your bag. From here we paid 150 Rupees for a rickshaw back to the base of the Rock Fort Temple but decided not to climb it. It was getting late and we hadn’t eaten for a long time, I don’t think my diabetes would have held out. Instead we ate at Vasanta Bhavan, a busy restaurant near the base of the Fort and had our first taste of the amazing flavours of India.
From Tiruchirappali we decided to catch a local bus to Thanjuvar costing 23 Rupees (£0.26) and taking just over an hour. A rickshaw to the bus station costs 150 Rupees. The buses leave every 5-10 minutes, 24 hours a day, just ask around at the bus station for the correct bus. If you can, try your best to sit at the front of the bus, and definitely don’t sit over a wheel. The back in incredibly bumpy, but you do get a lot more space! We spent a couple of nights in Thanjuvar trying to get used to India, visiting the Thanjuvar Palace and the Brihadishwara Temple. We arrived at the New Bus Station 8km out of town and took bus 74, which shuttles between the New Bus Station and the old one, in the town centre for 6 Rupees (£0.07). Thanjuvar Palace is a mixture of ruin and renovation and is worth taking an hour or so to explore. We paid the 200 Rupees (£2.30) to enter all areas, that way we knew we wouldn’t miss anything. There is the palace itself, a museum, a memorial hall, a library museum and an art gallery. The Brihadishwara Temple is one of the nicest temples I’ve seen, except perhaps for Angkor Watt. It’s a lovely temple, not as colourful as the other Hindu Temples I’ve seen, but the artwork and intricacy of the design is beautiful. It’s a nice place to sit in the shade of the walls, relax and take in your surroundings, appreciating where you are.
From Thanjuvar we decided to head south to Madurai. Bus 74 shuttle’s between the Old Bus Station and the New for 6 Rupees. Once at the New Bus Station, on New Bus Station Road I asked around for the bus to Madurai, I was pointed in the right direction and informed they leave every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day. The bus left at 10:30 and arrived in Madurai at 14:20, costing 90 Rupees (£1.05). Again we got dropped at the Old Bus Station but caught bus 75 for 9 Rupees to the city centre. The main attraction in Madurai is the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the home of the triple-breasted warrior goddess Meenakshi. Again there are parts of the temple you can’t enter unless you are a Hindu, but the architecture is pretty fantastic. We didn’t have to pay to enter the grounds but security is tight. You cannot take in your shoes or any bags (there is a ‘safe’ cloakroom) and you get a pat down before you can go in, men and women have to queue in different sections. I got asked what my injection was, I stated I was diabetic, received a welcoming head wobble in return and I was on my way in. You cannot enter the temple with any part of your legs showing and they are very strict about it, I only have shorts so I used Holly’s big scarf as a skirt.
From Madurai we decided to head to the southern tip of India, Kanyakumari, also know as Cape Comorin. It was quite a long journey in a local bus so we decided to try our luck and experience a semi-sleeper, to hopefully get a bit of comfort. We paid 710 Rupees (£8.20), its the same price online as it is in the booking company office. We were told to wait outside the office at 06:45. The bus eventually turned up at 08:00 a 5 minutes walk from where we were told to wait. A guy showed us the way and asked for a tip. However this was set up, I saw him in the office when I booked the tickets and at 06:45 he turned up and annoyed me for over an hour. The booking office had set it up with him so he could seem like the saviour and show us to our bus, I didn’t like it and didn’t tip him. Welcome to India. The bus was comfortable and I slept the whole way, arriving in Nagercoil, 15km from Kanyakumari at 11:35. I was offered a taxi the rest of the way which I refused. I was then offered a lift in a car which I refused at first until he insisted it was free, after what happened in the morning I wasn’t feeling very trusting. In the end we were dropped outside a hotel by this guy, who didn’t ask for any money, I can only assume he worked for the company and shuttle’s people the rest of the way in his beat up Nissan Sunny.
Kanyakumari is a lovely little town and not as mad as where we had previously been, however there were still no hostels. I’m missing staying in dorms and meeting other travellers who can give me advise on India. The Seashore Hotel has lovely food in their 7th floor restaurant, with a fantastic view of the coast line and great service. There is a Gandhi Memorial and the Kumari Amman Temple which are worth a visit if you have some time, if not just enjoy walking down the beautifully colourful alleyways leading to the see. Kanyakumari is where the Indian Ocean meets the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and also offers some fantastic sunsets. Tamil Nadu has been an interesting, challenging, tough but brilliant introduction to India and I am thoroughly excited to find out what the rest of this amazing country has to offer.