Galle and it’s amazing Fort

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Galle and it’s amazing Fort

It was time to leave Bentota behind and take the train to Galle. The train journey from Bentota to Galle takes around 50 minutes. As the train line hugs the coast for most of the way you will be treated to some stunning view of the coastline. The only downside to the train is that it gets extremely busy and you cannot reserve a seat. When the train arrived it was packed, no seats and people standing in the aisles, luckily for us we managed to stand in between the carriage doors, with the doors open, admiring the view. I felt sorry for the people who were standing in the aisles as they could not see a thing as there heads were above the windows.

When we did our research into Galle we decided that we was not going to stay in Galle town but in Galle Fort itself. Galle Fort was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese then extensively fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century and is a historical, archaeological and architectural heritage monument. There are many interesting sights to see in the Fort and if you have a copy of the Lonely Planet there is a really good walking tour. Some interesting buildings of interest are the All Saints Anglian Church built between 1868-1871 and would not look out of place in an English Village Old Lloyd’s Shipping Office with its well preserved ship arrivals board. The Dutch hospital which was once filled with victims of the plague. Ironically now it’s home to many upmarket restaurants. The Clock Tower built in 1882, who’s clock mechanism was built by the British is said to show the correct time even today. When we looked it was three hours out. “That’s why the Swiss make watches now” Also what’s nice about the Fort is you can walk all the way around the walls, which afford great views over the city and the bay. Staying in the Fort is a little more expensive than outside but it’s worth it. We found a great place called Villa Amilisa, it was in a great location and a very good price considering the other hotels. Originally we had only planned to stay one night but we liked the Fort so much we stayed for two. Which turned out to be a good thing as we met a really great couple Don & Marilyn from Canada. Spent a great evening with them and will definitely stay in touch

Restaurants

The ones we ate in and all were good was Cannon and Sugar both in the Dutch Hospital and Calorie for lunch, who serve a great salad.

Top Tip

When we were India their were a few occasions that we found that we wished we had booked for longer and a few that we could have stayed for less, and although we had booked most of our accommodation through Booking.com and could cancel quite close to our arrival date, once we were there we could not alter our dates, and quite frankly some accommodation we would not have stayed at all. “Photos and descriptions do lie”. When we was in Pondicherry and were having hotel problems, and the fact it was getting late and needed somewhere to stay we booked one hotel on Booking.com for one night costing £71 per night. We ended up staying at the same hotel and got a far better rate than Booking.com £41 per night “that’s not our normal budget, but White Town Pondicherry is expensive”. So when we arrived in Sri Lanka and was told that it is quite for tourists, we took the plunge and cancelled all of our accommodation and just decided to go with the flow. I have to say, so far it’s worked out brilliantly.

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Sri Lanka. First stop Bentota

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Sri Lanka. First stop Bentota

After our flight from Chennai we arrived in Sri Lanka. As we had arrived in the early hours of the morning, and the journey to our transit hotel where we were just going to to get a few hours sleep was very short. We did not get any indication of what Sri Lanka was going to be like, the only thing that I noticed immediately was how much calmer the driving was. I thought that this was due to the fact it was 02:30 am, and everyone was asleep.

On our journey to the bus station to get the bus to Bentota it was quite clear to the fact that Sri Lanka was going to be nothing like India. As on the way was immediately evident that it was going to be much calmer “driving wise”, the streets were so much cleaner, and everything seemed so much more sedate. Straight away we knew we were going to love Sri Lanka. Our journey from Negombo to Colombo took around an hour, “but not without its problems. See below”, the second leg of the journey was around two and a half hours for a distance of just 70 miles because of heavy traffic. Total journey price £6;30 Taxi would have cost upward of £30.

Bus scam beware

We were taken to the bus station by Shaun who was the manager of the Transit Inn where we stayed for our first night. He told us that the fare to Colombo would be 130 lkr £0.59. We had three seats, one for our luggage. So our total fare for the journey would be 330 lkr. On arriving at the bus station in Colombo the conductor of the bus wanted 800 lkr, two seats for us a seat for each of our bags “both bags were on one seat” and 400 lkr for the toll which was the toll fare for the whole bus. “We noticed the fee at the toll booth”. Needless to say even though he wasn’t happy we said no and just gave him the correct fare. The next leg of our journey to Bentota went much smoother the conductor was very helpful and he didn’t try to scam us.

Bentota

I’m sure if you looked at Bentota in the glossy brochures you will find endless high end faceless hotels, so for some this may well put you off visiting, but if you cross the bridge heading south out of town and head for the beach you will find, what seemed to us like miles of unspoilt immaculately clean white sand beaches. Our choice of homestay was Villa Lalita, a really lovely home stay, great value and amazing hosts. Villa Lalita is in Pitaramba Road, which is turning on the right, over the bridge heading south. There are plenty of other home stays to choose from down this road. Our homestay was just a 5 minute walk to an amazing beach, that you will almost have all to yourself. We possibly counted fifty or so people in like I said what seemed like miles of beach. We didn’t do much else in Bentota except soak up the sun, as we needed a rest after our busy schedule in India.

Eating out.

Restaurants in Bentota . Pier 88, which is in Bentota town itself, they served good food. Good location on the river. Happy Fish “although if you chose a fish dish the fish would not be too happy”. Located just across the bridge heading into town, another one with river views. Finally the Golden Grill which I can also recommend. “Just don’t order a bottle of Sri Lankan wine, it’s appalling”.

Taxi’s

Über and Ola Cabs appear not to be available in Sri Lanka, but another useful app I found was PickMe which does work, but not in all areas.

Next stop Galle Fort.

Mahabalipuram.

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Mahabalipuram.

After a relatively short journey from Pondicherry we reached the last stop on our India adventure, Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram is situated on the coast in the Bay of Bengal. It is quite a tourist haunt for many locals “especially at weekends” as well as international visitors. The main area of the town is called fisherman’s colony . Which consists of one main street leading down to the sea. Here you will find plenty of shops restaurants and gift shops. Like I said quite a tourist trap. There are some interesting sights to see here, like The Shore Temple. The Shore Temple is sited on a small peninsula of land overlooking the Bay of Bengal. The Pancha Rathas or Five Rathas. Are five temples shaped like chariots, each carved out of a single piece of stone, which date back to the seventh century. Krishna’s Butterball is a huge rock measuring some 6 metres tall and 5 metres wide and weighs some 250 tons. It precariously sits on a slope and looks like it can roll down at any minute. In 1908 the then governor of the town Arthur Havelock tried to move the stone because of health and safety reasons, with five elephants, but had no success, quite amazing really. Arjunas Penance, also know as The Decent of the Ganges, is a huge rock carving, measuring 29 metres long and 13 metres tall. Legend says that it is the decent of the Ganges from heaven to earth. Another must visit is Crocodile Bank Trust, which is a few kilometres from Mahabalipuram. Now when it comes to visiting places which involves animals we are very choosy indeed, as there are so many places purporting to be “Sanctuary’s, Conservationists, Rehabilitation centres,which are no more than a glorified tourist trap where they treat the animals badly just to make a lot of money. So we did our research and from what we had read we decided to visit. Crocodile Bank Trust was formed in 1976 by Rom and Zai Whitaker with the goal of protecting the three species of Indian crocodile, the Mugger, Saltwater crocodile and the rarest the Gharial. As by the 1970’s Indian crocodile population was on the brink of extinction. We both really did not realise how many species of crocodiles there were. Today Crocodile Bank has 17 species and has an excellent program of introducing them back into the wild. Entrance fee is just 50 rupees and is open Tuesday to Sunday 09:00 until 17:00

That’s the good side of Mahabalipuram the down side is the beach where all the fishing boats are situated at the end of the main street, is quite frankly filthy rubbish strewn everywhere, from discarded fishing nets, plastic bottles dog and cow excrement not a nice place to walk at all, but if it’s a nice part of the beach you are looking for just walk along the beach away from town past the large Raddison resort for about a mile or so where the beach is much better. There are no sun beds or beach shacks selling drinks food so you will have to take your own towel if you want to sunbath. All that said it is still a very nice place to visit.

On a sad note, during our walk along the beach we witnessed maybe six quiet large sea turtle carcasses. One looked quite recently deceased. We saw no evidence of there demise but I would not be surprised if their deaths were caused either by being caught in a discarded fishing net, or they had eaten some form of plastic. As quite often they think a floating plastic bag is a jelly fish which they eat. I spoke to the owner of our accommodation and he said that this seems to occur the same time each year. Whatever the reason it was a sad sight.

Accommodation

I feel I have to make a special mention about our accommodation The Blue Moon Guest House. Blue Moon is situated a couple of streets away from the main street in a nice quiet location. “I can recommend the room at the very top as it has views over the ocean”. The owner Saravanan is so nice, very helpful and speaks very good English.Blue Moon has basic good clean rooms and serves a good breakfast. So give them a look if you are in the area.

Restaurants

We only ate at two restaurants during our stay. One was Nautilus, the other was Vinodhara Guest House both served good food.

Pondicherry

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Pondicherry

After leaving Kumbakonam our next stop on our trip was the town of Pondicherry. This small town was the largest French colony in India, and was so right up to 1954. The French influence is still very much in evidence, the architecture, French street names, bakery’s and French speaking Indians. Pondicherry has three different areas. There is the heritage quarter, white town and the new town which is basically like stepping back into India. Our stay in Pondicherry did not start too well. On arrival we had problems with accommodation, one was nothing like as described, another after booking online told us on arrival that they had no rooms available. When I showed them our booking reference, we was informed that it was a computer error,and I was plagued by ” what I can honestly say” was the worst cough I have ever had and was feeling quite ill. Not a good start. So it was good that we had a full seven days stay in the town so I had time to recover. Once we finally got the accommodation settled it was time to enjoy Pondicherry “in between coughing fits that is”. Over the first few days of our stay, we discovered that we had arrived during an Indian festival called Pongal. It is a four day harvest festival dedicated to the different Gods to promote a good crop growing season. What is really nice about it is that many of the locals create intricate designed drawings (mandalas) on the pavements, created with many different coloured powders. A truly amazing sight. In Pondicherry there isn’t many notable sights to see, but that is not to say it isn’t a very nice place to spend some time. It is far removed from main stream Indian, and was a little bit of calm and serenity after our very busy previous few weeks.

So our week consisted of taking walks along the promenade with its nice refreshing breeze, to visiting some of the many good restaurants in the area. Notable sights are the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, also the Pondicherry Museum, which is housed in a very beautiful ornate building. A bit further out of town if you want to venture further is Auroville “which we did not visit”, but it’s described as a township devoted to an experiment in human unity community. It was founded in 1968 by the spiritual leader Mirra Alfassa who is also known as “Mother”

Restaurants & Eateries

Le Chateau I can highly recommend the restaurant in the hotel where we stayed. Le Chateau, the food is excellent, staff are first class. Also the kitchen is housed behind a glass wall where you can see the chefs preparing and cooking the food.

Cafe del Flora A great place to just chill and relax. The cafe is owned and run bu a nice French guy, and serves baguettes, quiches and various other delights and good coffee.

Sicily’s Another nice place right on the seafront, serving great coffee, delicious cakes and really good pizza.

Not a lot else to say about Pondicherry except if you are touring southern India it’s a nice place to stay. Next stop Mahabalipuram.

Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), Thanjavur and Kumbakonam.

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Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), Thanjavur and Kumbakonam.

We travelled from Madurai to Trichy by coach with Parveen Travels, who I have to say we’re very good indeed, and would throughly recommend travelling with. They have various offices located throughout southern India and it’s worth checking them out. The journey took around two and a half hours, and was very pleasant indeed. Having read a lot about these three cities whilst doing our research, and reading about the unique temples in each of them, we felt we had to include them on our trip. I won’t go into detail about each city, as quite frankly, and not to sound too harsh they are just very busy Indian cities with little else other than the temples.

I will concentrate on the main sights, and give you a little insight into each.

Trichy.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

The temple occupies an area of 155 acres (63 ha) with 50 shrines, 21 towers, 39 pavilions and many water tanks integrated into the complex. The temple town is a significant archeological and epigraphical site, providing a historic window into the early and mid medieval South Indian society and culture. Numerous inscriptions suggest that this Hindu temple served not only as a spiritual center, but also a major economic and charitable institution that operated education and hospital facilities, ran a free kitchen, and financed regional infrastructure projects from the gifts and donations it received “article extracted from Wikipedia”. Two other places of interest in Trichy, are the rock Fort with the seventeenth century Vinayaka (Ganesh) temple at the top. Entrance to the temple is in the very busy, China bazaar street. It’s quite an arduous climb to the top, up some very steep steps at times, which you will have to do bare footed, as it’s a Hindu temple. “Still don’t quite understand this rule, or who even made the rule up”. Upon reaching the top there are far reaching views across the city. The other interesting structure is Our Lady of Lourdes church , which is modelled on the basilica of Lourdes. The church is at the start of bazaar street so visit this first then walk along the China bazaar to get to the Rock Fort. These you could quite easily visit in one day. We originally had four nights booked in Trichy but we cut this down to three, as apart from the above there is not much else to do in the city.

Thanjavur

Is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Brihadishwara Temple and is by far my favourite temple on this trip. The Gopura’s (temple towers) are not brightly coloured like most of the other temples we have visited, but are left in original sandstone. Which in my opinion is more pleasing to the eye. Brihadishwara Temple is one of the largest in South India and is dedicated to the god Shiva. Also in town is the Thanjavur Palace. The Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex, known locally as Aranmanai, is the official residence of the Bhonsle family which ruled over the Tanjore region from 1674 to 1855. Most of it is now derelict but there some interesting artefacts inside and some nicely preserved sections. Note the palace is closed between 1pm and 2pm and entrance costs 200 INR which includes entrance to the library, art gallery and the museum.

Kumbakonam

Around one and a half hours drive from Thanjāvūr is Kumbakonam, the last stop on our temple trail. Kumbakonam is a very busy, bustling place,we felt more so than the other cities which we had visited, it was manic. It also didn’t help by the fact that our hotel was situated by a very large bus station, with their horns bellowing from early morning and until late at night. We had only booked two nights, so we only had one full day to explore. Their are quite a few temples to visit in Kumbakonam but we only managed one, probably as at this stage in our trip we were quite frankly all templed out. We decided on visiting the Airavatesvara Temple. It’s situated a little out of town, it’s nice and quite, and set in some well manicured grounds. Just perfect. The style of the temple is very much like the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjāvūr, but on a much smaller scale. So if you are doing the same sort of itinerary as us, and like us “templed out” then it is one to visit.

Indian Religion

I feel I want to just add my take on the Hindu way of worship. Being somebody that has no faith, I still find all religions fascinating. Firstly I am a great lover of the amazing architecture of the places of worship, whichever religion this maybe. I am also fascinated by the dedication of the followers. We have seen hundreds possibly thousands of people queuing on a daily basis to give there offerings. We have witnessed train and bus loads of pilgrims travelling from all parts of India to worship at there chosen gods temple. We spoke to a group on a train that had been travelling non stop for some thirty hours to reach a a temple on there pilgrimage. I find this devotion and dedication quite mind blowing. The one thing that I will never understand though is that outside every temple we visited there are many market stalls selling flowers, coconuts, parcels of food, which are then taken into the temple and given to the gods as an offering. In addition to this millions of rupees are donated every day. My question is where does all this food and money go. Certainly not to the people who need it, as the amount of homeless people I have witnessed on the streets and living in squaller and begging for food is incredible. One fact that I looked up was that the current estimates of homeless in India run at 78 million, 11 million of which are children. These figures shocked me. That is 13 million more than the whole population of the UK. Food for thought I think.