Tag Archives: travel tips

Kumarakom, Kerala Backwaters

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Kumarakom, Kerala Backwaters

Our next stop on our journey is Kumarakom, a small town on the Kerala Backwaters situated around 16km from Kottayam. We headed for the train station quite early to buy our train tickets and to assess the situation, as this was to be our first train journey on our current trip. We had used India railways on our previous visit to India and as we discovered then, getting tickets finding the right platform is a bit of palaver to say the least. But with tickets purchased, we waited for our train. Our train was supposed to arrive at 1150, that’s normal time., but what time it would arrive in Indian time, who knows. The train eventually arrived at 1240 which wasn’t too bad in the scheme of things. Our journey to Kottayam, took around three hours. We had a nice chat with a couple of students “Neethu and Tresitta” who were studying engineering. So the journey went quite quick. We took a Tuk Tuk from the station to our Homestay “Tuk Tuk’s are getting quite upmarket these days, our one had enough space for the luggage behind the seats,” takin a Tuk Tuk is also a much cheaper option than a taxi.

Our accommodation for this leg of the trip is Mango Kerala Homes or the Indian name is Meenakshi River Villa. A really beautiful Homestay on the Keralan backwaters. If you ever visit Kumarakom you have to stay here. The owners are amazing the rooms are top class and it’s very good value for money £29 per night including breakfast.

There is not a great deal to do in the area, except relax, you could take a backwater Cruise, there are plenty of boats to choose from. We didn’t as we have done this on past trips to India. There is the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, which is worth a visit, although strangely we never saw one bird, quite bizarre. We did see some quite large monitor lizards, a water snake and some beautiful dragon flies. It costs 150 INR per person, and is worth a visit. We wanted to visit the driftwood museum, but unfortunately it was closed the days we were in Kumarakom

Top Tips

Restaurants We ate our evening meal in our homestay on two nights, but I can recommend Manani which was a short walk away, serving good food and good service.

ATM’s Cash Machines Some atm’s will dispense up to your banks withdrawing limit, but on occasions they will only dispense a maximum of 10000 INR, around £115. You can make multiple withdrawals up to your daily limit from the same ATM. Not all ATM machines tell you this on the screen, and rejects the transaction. So just reduce your amount to 10000 INR and you’ll be fine.

AccommodationWe stayed at Mango Kerala home, and like I said earlier I recommend staying here for it’s amazing owners, fantastic food, location and top class rooms.

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Varkala, Kerala,

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Varkala, Kerala,

After our three days in Trivandrum it was time to head for the coast to Varkala. Varkala town in itself is quite nondescript, just one road with shops, market stalls and street sellers. But move to the coast to the area called the helipad, and things get a whole lot different.

From the helipad “yes there is a helipad”. Possibly used for air ambulances “as there is a hospital nearby or for the coast guard”. From here and as far as the eye can see is a meandering and spectacular cliff top walk lined with restaurants, shops, and street sellers plying there trade. A truly amazing sight. Running parallel with the walkway, and with access gained down some steep steps at various places along the way, is what possibly is around two miles of golden sand beach. A real idyllic location. Most of the people here are young backpackers, ageing hippies and us, a great mix. We are here for six nights before moving onto Kumarakom which is on the edge of the Kerala backwaters.

Top Tips

SIM card Now when we were in Trivandrum I took a Tuk Tuk to the Airtel main office. Went through a drawn out process of taking your passport, supplying a photo and filling forms. This was on Friday. I was told that my SIM card would be online on the following Tues. Tuesday came nothing. Good job I did not pay for the sim. When we arrived in Varkala, we went into a local grocery store, asked about a SIM card and after handing over sr 600 around £7, for two months usage 1gb of data a day and unlimited calls and texts within India I was up and running. A bargain in my book, the phone network supplier was Idea.

Restaurants; The ones we tried were

Abba not very impressed with this one, we tried pasta “not very Indian I know but we needed a change” meal was very bland and not very hot

Coffee Temple this one is in the lonely planet guide, good coffee, nice tunes and good breakfast. Quite expensive for Indian standards though but a popular haunt.

God’s own country kitchen Good for seafood and nice and friendly waiters.

Cafe del Mar Really good food, but no alcohol

Tibetan Kitchen Had some excellent steamed momo (dumplings)

Sky Lounge Reasonable meal but had better. Nice Lassi’s and fruit juice though.

Good for drinks

Rock & roll cafe good for cocktails and beer, and good music.

Accommodation

We stayed at MK gardens, although it had good reviews on booking.com, we were not overly impressed. Had an issue with the bedding, in particular the pillows, which quite frankly were disgusting. Contacted owner and it was soon rectified with some brand new pillows. But the place needed a good tidy up decor wise. And for what can only be described as a backpacker accommodation quite expensive at £25 per night. So I would not recommend it.

“Regarding the purchase of alcohol, most places serve alcohol although it’s not allowed by law, but the authorities seem to turn a blind eye to the practise. The most bizarre part of the whole drink situation is that if you have a beer the waiters quickly pour it into a porcelain mug and hide what remain in the bottles under the table. Also beer, wine and cocktails are not on any menu’s so you have to ask, but note not all restaurants serve it. At time of writing 650mm bottle of kingfisher was rs 200 around £2.15

Our three Month Asian Adventure. India and Sri Lanka,

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After months of planning and deliberating the day has finally arrived when we embark on our three month journey through southern India and Sri Lanka. Starting in Kerala and its capital Trivandrum to the coastal resort of Varkala. Onto the Keralan backwaters near Kottayam. Travel by the famous toy train high up into the Western Ghats to the hill stations of Ooty and Coonar. Then onto the state of Karnataka to visit the UNESCO site of Hampi and it’s temple complex. Then travelling back south via Mysore, Bangalore, and into the state of Tamil Nadu and to the cities of Madurai and Trichy. Then back to the coast and to the town of Pondicherry “pronounced puducherry”. Then following the coast northward to Mallhabpuram. Then taking an hour long flight from Chennai “formally Madras” to Sri Lanka; “more on that later.”

We have arranged our trip the same way as we always do like keeping one eye on the cost, like staying in budget hotels, and travelling around on buses and trains. For example our current hotel The Safire Residency “grand name I know” is a basic no frills budget hotel, which is very clean, has really friendly and helpful staff, all for Just £23 for three nights.

We had saved for our flights and our accommodation. Which incidentally is an average of £20 per night for the whole trip. But in respect of spending money we are just living on the money we would live on in the UK. “In case you are wondering about work fortunately we are both retired. Transport costs are also amazingly cheap for example our journey on the toy train, “which incidentally takes around four hours up the mountain ” is just 0.79p for two people, and no that’s not a typing error.

Trivandrum

We decided to stay in Kerala’s capital city for three nights as there were a couple of things we wanted to see in the town, before moving onto Varkala, on the coast. Trivandrum does not have a great deal of things to-do but a couple of recommendations are:-

Indian Coffee house a coffee shop chain run by a series of workers cooperative, visit the one near the train station, as the building which it’s in is like a tower, with a spiral slope inside with all the tables along the wall.

Napier Museum situated in the botanical gardens and near to the zoo. Built at the end of the 19th century, a very ornate and colourful structure, housing a collection of ornate wood carvings and ceremonial masks dating back to the 15th century. A must see is the ornately carved temple chariot.

Sri Padmanabhasswamy Temple A very ornate temple, but unfortunately closed to non Hindus, but worth a look. Also it’s worth walking around the nearby streets and perusing through the many shops in the area.

Top Tips

On arriving at the airport make sure you go to the pre-paid taxi kiosk in the arrivals terminal to avoid being over charged by the taxi drivers outside. Also as the rupee is a closed currency, which means you cannot buy them outside of India, you have no alternative than to use the currency exchange booth in the airport. But just change up enough money to get you from the hotel into town as their exchange rates, are quite frankly, extortionate.

Getting around the town is easy, as there are many tuk-tuks plying there trade, the cost of which is very small. Also there are plenty of restaurants around most of which are pure vegetarian. We found an excellent restaurant near to our hotel called Aryaas it’s situated in the Aryaas Hotel and I can thoroughly recommend it. The food is good, and it’s very cheap. For example we had a vegetable biryani “one is enough to share”, two side dishes, two types of bread and a tomato salad, all for just £6.95.

We had planned to get the train to Varkala our next destination. So we went to the station to survey the situation and to buy our tickets, but unfortunately it appeared you cannot buy tickets in advance. As we were leaving the station we were approached by a nice friendly taxi driver and struck a deal to take us door to door for 1200rs around £13, which for a one and a half hour car journey was a bargain in our book.

Xian and the Terracotta Army,

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Xian and the Terracotta Army,

The last stop on our trip was a return to China. As I said in my previous post, the reason we had a stop in China on our outbound leg and also our return leg was that we flew with Air China from London to Kuala Lumpur this was the best air fare we could find, and the fact, like most airlines it does not cost any more on your airfare to stop at the airlines hub for a few days, which in our case was Beijing.

On our return to China we decided not to stay in Beijing but to get the super fast bullet train to Xian to visit the amazing Terracotta Warriors. Whilst we were in Beijing at the beginning of our trip we thought it wise to visit the train station to purchase our tickets and to get the lay of the land so to speak, and also to purchase our tickets. Top Tip if possible ask at your hotel reception, or in our case the owners of the Hutong where we were staying to write down in Chinese your journey details, dates and times etc, as English speaking Chinese are few and far between.

The Xian train leaves from Beijing West to Xian North 16 times daily, so you have plenty of choice. Point to note. You cannot buy return tickets, just singles, the cost at time of writing was $77 each for second class one way, $154 or £114 return per person. We chose the 08:05 train taking 5hrs 48min to cover a distance of 756 Miles at speeds in excess of 196 mph very impressive. Although you would really not know that you were travelling that fast at all. We thought that the journey would take us through some nice and scenic Chinese countryside, but instead it was very flat and baron, quite disappointing really. To add to this the whole vista was shrouded by the infamous smog that the country is known for, but to be fair it did get a little better as we approached Xian where the region is a little more scenic. After checking into our hotel we decided to explore the city. Xian felt much calmer and slower pace than Beijing, and the people seemed a little more laid back. The must do’s whist in town “apart from the Warriors that is” is to visit the Bell Drum Tower, just amazing in the day time but spectacular at night. Another must see is the Muslin quarter, which luckily for us was just around the corner to our hotel, a truly amazing place with lots of diverse shops,restaurants, and street food vendors, selling what can only be described as “strange looking food” but a must visit.

Terracotta Warriors

On our first full day in Xian if was off to see the warriors. They are situated around an hour away by bus from the city,”possibly quicker in a taxi”. Getting the bus to the Warriors was not as straight forward as the guide book states. We arrived at the bus station and it was manic, crowds of people going about there daily commute, but I suppose like all bus stations really. Now our guide book suggested to get bus No 915 but the local map we were given at the hotel said to take bus No 306? We decided to join the queue for the bus 306. Whilst we were in the queue there were people with loud hailers trying to get you on bus 915, they were even trying to politely drag people out of the queues to get on there buses. We decided to stay put as there were a lot of locals in our queue, so we presumed they would be the ones to follow. It turned out the right decision as the 306 was like the map stated the public bus and the 915 was the tourist bus. But all that said if you want to take the tourist bus and stop at the other attractions on the way then take that one, it’s a personal choice.

The Warriors are situated in three large halls. A Top Tip all the images you see on tv and online of the Warriors are mostly taken in Hall 1, but someone told us don’t go to the main hall first, like most people do, but to visit the halls in reverse order, halls 3, 2 then 1. As by doing it this way you build up to the main hall. When you eventually enter the main hall you will be blown away. The only disappointment on our visit to the site was the fact that after you leave the site you are ejected into an awful man made replica of an old Chinese Market with endless tacky gift shops and fast food restaurants, with a long walk back to the bus. I suppose in reality the cost of restoring the site, and to pay for the on going restoration work it’s a small price to pay. Entrance fee at time of writing is 120¥ which is around £13.50 which is an absolute bargain in my book.

Click here for a very useful website explaining all you need to know about visiting

For more photo’s of the Terracotta Army, click this link to my Flickr page

Phuket

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Phuket

The next stop on our journey to Asia was Phuket in Thailand. Just a short flight from our last stop Singapore. Now this part of the journey I was looking forward too as whilst we were in Phuket it was to be my 60th birthday, it was supposed to be a laid back leg, sun, sea, and sand, but I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. Yes it had the sun, sea, and sand but not much else in my opinion. Karon beach where we were staying was a bit like Benidorm in Spain for my liking, full of tacky souvenir shops, not very inspiring restaurants “except where we went for my birthday” with menu’s like the Encyclopedia Britannica, quite how they can produce all those dishes is beyond me. Also another thing that spoilt it for me the whole place caters for visitors from Russian. Most of the signage was in Russian and nearly all the restaurant menus were the same. Now let’s get this straight I having traveled extensively around the world, but when I leave England and travel to wherever it may be I want to sample that country for what it is, the food, and the culture not because most of its visitors are from a certain part of the globe. This is the same reason I steer clear of places that cater for the “Brit Abroad” I absolutely hate it.

We did hire a scooter and got around a bit though. We went to Kamala beach which in my opinion was much nicer than Karon. Rode through Patong, which looked like a living nightmare and visited The Big Buddha. On my 60th we went to, probably the only nice restaurant in Karon, and that was the Boat House, a really lovely restaurant right on the beach front, recommended in the Lonely Planet and by most internet searches for restaurants in the area. A beautiful meal was had and washed down with a lovely, if not expensive bottle of wine.

One place I would highly recommend visiting when visiting the island is Old Town Phuket. Lots of interesting little shops and restaurants and really lovely buildings, and more importantly much much cheaper than the resorts

 

Travel Tips

Beware, you will not find a metered taxi around any of the popular beach resorts on the island. You will only find small Tuk-Tuk’s, albeit the modern variety which are small vans, normally opened sided, which huge sound systems blasting out ear shattering music, all seemingly run by the local taxi mafia. Thankfully we only used them once. Their rates are quite frankly extortionate, our short journey of about half a mile cost around £5.00, and they will not negotiate. Getting a metered taxi from the airport was ok but getting one to return as like I said it was impossible to find one. So I suggest if you get a good, friendly driver from the airport, get his or her number and use them for your return.