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Vagabonding in Asia 2009, part 6 of 11: Southern India

Table of contents:

Part 1
China, southeast
Part 2
China, southwest
Part 3
China, north
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
India, south

Part 7
Part 8
Sumatra and Java
Part 9
Bali and Lombok
Part 10
Part 11
Laos, Cambodia, Bangkok

Tour dates: 17 March - 17 May 2009.
Air travel is shown in blue; bus and train travel is shown in pink. The starting point was Hong Kong.

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Mumbai (Bombay)

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Gateway of India in Mumbai is a monumental arch facing the sea. It's best seen from the harbor so I took a harbor tour boat. It didn't really work because it's full of Indians; at first I didn't realize why the two seats next to mine saw so much traffic, people constantly getting up and sitting down, until I saw that I was the main attraction and people wanted their picture taken with me. So we turned it into a party where everybody was taking pictures and showed them around. Many people wanted me to take their picture, children were grimacing. (The harbor itself is totally boring.)

Taj Mahal palace and tower hotel, Gateway of India Photo shooting on the harbor cruise boat
Taj Mahal palace and tower hotel, Gateway of India Photo shooting on the harbor cruise boat

I had inquired about rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a landmark next to the Gateway. But the palace wing is still roped off, boarded up, and shut down after the terrorist attacks in November. The tower wing is open, but it's a boring office tower with some prefab concrete ornaments hung on the facade; it has a barrier, a fence, metal detectors, a gun emplacement, and a bag search station. I am glad I am not staying in this prison camp.

Victoria Terminus train station in Mumbai High Court and cricket field in Mumbai
Victoria Terminus train station in Mumbai High Court and cricket field in Mumbai

Mumbai, as expected, is a big noisy town with the usual honking traffic chaos. But there are lots of quiet leafy neighborhoods with old buildings that have a feel about them that almost reminds me of some old neighborhoods of Berlin (if they weren't so dilapidated). Mumbai has many trees lining its roads, which hide some of the rundown architecture. There are also grand old palaces from British colonial times, big parks where people play cricket and rugby, and the most palatial train station - Victoria Terminus - that I have ever seen. Inside it's not palatial at all though, and filled with masses of people in a hurry. There is a big bazaar to the north of the train station, with a heavy emphasis on electronics, and in Asia "electronics" is a synonym for "cell phones".

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The interesting part of Mumbai, where nearly all the sights are, is the Colaba peninsula between the harbor in the east, and Back Bay in the west. Another, much narrower, peninsula wraps around the other side of Back Bay, and that's where I went. They have a few very nice parks (where "straineous exercise" is not allowed), and a large rectangular pool called Banganga Tank with stairs leading down on all four sides. People sit there and talk, or perform religious rites involving offerings, incense, and washing. There are many small shrines around it, and a large area where Mumbai's clothes are washed. Back Bay is open to the Arabian Sea, but that side of the peninsula is very filthy.

Back Bay 'tank' in Mumbai Chowpatti beach in Mumbai
Back Bay 'tank' Chowpatti beach

Walked to Chowpatty Beach next. This part of town is nice, and I had a great lunch with a monumental chocolate sundae there, but the beach is not. There is an abandoned amusement park, huts made from bamboo and plastic tarp, with an open sewer running down to the water, and children are playing in the dirty water. They came out, smiling excitedly, to shake my hand and earnestly pronouncing their few English sentences, then ran back into the water giggling.

Also walked to the Chor Bazaar, a large part of town crammed with food and clothing stalls, and the ubiquitous cellphone repairmen. Chickens are killed, plucked in plastic buckets, and sold here. It's quite dirty and slippery. There are many women I call Black Ravens - muslims with full-body burkhas and only an eye slit. One lifted her veil to spit on the ground. I talked to a few students; one young man from an art school told me that his career choice is "getting rich". Then they all wanted photos with me.

Chor Bazaar district in Mumbai Chor Bazaar district in Mumbai
Chor Bazaar district in Mumbai

Watched the sundown at the Gateway of India, and soon attracted the photo crowd again. I should consider a career as a model.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The hotel breakfast isn't very good ("continental", ugh) so I went to Leopold's. That's an old institution in Mumbai dating back to the British rajs. It was one of the targets of November's terror attacks, and the bullet holes are still there. I hope it's the last bullet hole I'll encounter on this trip. Their mango lassi is excellent.

Bullet hole at Leopold's from the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai Dharavi slum in Mumbai
Bullet hole at Leopold's from the 2008 terror attacks Dharavi slum in Mumbai

Dharavi in the middle of Mumbai is Asia's largest slum, they say. From above it's a patchwork of gray corrugated metal roofs, packed so densely that there are hardly any gaps, and none wide enough that they could be called streets. They actually run sightseeing tours through the slum, but I was content with the edges, it would feel like a zoo otherwise.


Thursday, 7 May 2009

Goa, on the west coast of the India, surrounded by beaches and old towns that look more Portuguese than Indian, has been known as a 60's hippy hangout ever since the Beatles found their Baghwan here. The hippies are gone, but this is not the place to rush from one church to the next. This is a place to sit idly in a park, chat with locals, ponder where to have lunch, and generally relaxing. I decided to stay a couple more days here before I take the bus to Mangalore.

Panaji, the capital of Goa Panaji, the capital of Goa
Panaji, the capital of Goa

Actually I wanted to take the train, but trains in India are fully booked. All of them. You need to draw a number at the station, at a cost of 10 rupees, fill out a form, wait in line, and get told that there is no way from here to there. They are good with forms here - my hotel needs a passport copy, and while a SIM card in China is handed over when you put enough money on the table, here it takes a passport copy, a photograph, and nine signatures on four forms. Despite several visits to the company, Airtel, the card never worked.

Old Goa

Friday, 8 May 2009

Old Goa was a great town once, in the sixteenth century, larger than Lisbon and London. No longer, it has basically disappeared and returned to a forest. But the huge elaborate churches, convents, and some ruins are still there, scenically scattered about a very large park with palm trees (one of which tried to drop a huge frond on me but missed), forests, and ponds. Few people live here any more, it's like a giant theme park for colonial monuments. Some of these churches have seen Christian, Muslim, and Hindu services, but today they are well-preserved museums. No admissions are charged anywhere.

Old Goa church Nothing left but churches in Old Goa
Nothing left but churches in Old Goa

The sun burns down vertically (Goa is solidly tropical) so no walls see any sun and there is little shadow. People move slowly, or sit or sleep in the shadow. Even the few souvenir vendors who have made it out here seemed lethargic and easily discouraged. I'll catch a bus to Mangalore tomorrow, and then I think I'll escape to the cooler hills.

Beaches of Goa

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Can't really spend time in Goa without hitting the beaches, so I hired a motorcycle driver whom I had met and chatted with in a park the day before for an excursion. Fort Aguada and Candolim are a little west of Panaji, looking out on the Arabian Sea. All the things one expects on any beach of that kind are there - beach pubs, huts for rent, white beaches with palm trees, paragliders and jet skis, and a sun so hot that it sends everyone running for cover. The lassis there were very good. What Candolim has and the others don't is a huge old rusty cargo ship grounded close to the beach.

Candolim beach in Goa Candolim beach in Goa
Candolim beach in Goa

Panaji's long-distance bus station is a long dusty strip along the Mumbai-Mangalore road. There are no signs anywhere, buses come and go and it took a while to find the right one late in the evening. I had booked a luxury bus but it turned out to be a fairly decrepit old sleeper bus with 22 body pods and some cramped seats. The motor is screaming at high rpm, and the bunks are too short, but at least it was reasonably clean and the windows opened. I must have managed to actually sleep a little during the ten hours to Mangalore, some 300km south.

They use a filthy hotel as a rest stop in Mangalore. I declined their offers of breakfast. The toilets - if a reeking hole in the ground in an unlit box deserves that name - are across a large courtyard; the space between the garbage piles is littered with garbage. I had decided that I don't really want to stay in Mangalore and gave the driver some cash so he'd let me stay on the bus for another eight hours to Mysore, 200km inland.

The scenery between Mangalore and Mysore is very nice, mostly dense forest with very few villages, up and down the hills called the Western Ghats. When I finally arrived in Mysore at 14:00, I felt exhausted and grubby and checked into a nice modern hotel with AC. I've had enough Indian atmosphere for today.


Monday, 13 May 2009

Maharaja palace of Mysore at night

Although I wasn't quite up to exploring Mysore after that 18-hour bus ride from hell, I did walk around town in the evening a little. It's the usual chaotic south Indian town, without much colonial atmosphere. They have a large partly covered bazaar where I walked for a while, striking up conversations with vendors. Most people speak English and are curious when they see a European face. It's really amazing how few Europeans I have met in the past two months of travelling.

Market in Mysore Street in Mysore
Market in Mysore Street in Mysore

One hour per week, the huge fairyland Maharaja Palace is lit up with a hundred thousand light bulbs, and today was the day, so I went there as well and watched the crowds.


Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Maharaja of Mysore and I agree that Mysore is too hot in the summer. He owns another palace in Ooty, a hill station 100 km south at 2200m, where it is dry and cool. I liked Ooty's palace much better than the one in Mysore - it's older, but a lot more cozy; everything is wood-paneled, there are lots of antiques, and a 45-acre garden around it. I originally went there because there are some cheap cottages for rent, but at the reception they told me, no problem, but if I had a minute they wanted to show me something, and drove me to the palace in a golf cart to show me their suites. I liked them so much that I got a suite there; the Maharaja owns the place but has turned it into a luxury hotel two years ago. It's hugely expensive in rupees and a steal in euros. The Maharaja couldn't join me that day but a minister was there.

Fernhill, the Maharaja's summer palace and hotel Fernhill, the Maharaja's summer palace and hotel
Fernhill, the Maharaja's summer palace and hotel

It's so good to walk around Ooty's lake in the cool dry air, smelling the pine forests and the flowers. There are absolutely no sights here besides the palace and the hill scenery, which suited me just fine. On the way to Ooty I saw a wild elephant for the first time. Domesticated elephants are all over Asia, but a wild one is new.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Amazing. I actually got a train ticket to Chennai tomorrow. Not the slightest bit sold out. The narrow-gauge mountain train, which somehow got Unesco World Heritage status, is booked solid well into June though.

Main street in Ooty Botanical garden in Ooty
Main street in Ooty Botanical garden in Ooty

You don't rush from one temple to the next in Ooty. It's too relaxed for that, and besides there aren't any temples. I spent most of the day in the botanical garden and the rose garden, watching people. Most Chinese women, who tend to wear practical Western clothes (they are all made there, after all), would look gorgeous in these brightly colored two-part saris popular here. But a large number of the Indian women wearing them look like boiled dumplings burst open in the middle. Not the lady in the picture below though.

Lady in Ooty's rose garden Ooty suburb seen from the rose garden
Lady in Ooty's rose garden Ooty suburb seen from the rose garden

The rose garden is organized very methodically, but the botanical garden just drops lots of pretty flowers everywhere and leaves people to enjoy them.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Made an excursion into the hills around Ooty. Wonderful views of the valley and the hills stretching to the horizon. There are many tea plantations. It was another warm sunny summer day, but I was told that in two weeks the monsoon will bring lots of snow, in June!

Took a local bus to Mettupalayam, a village at the bottom of the hills where my train to Chennai will depart. The bus is a decrepit wheezing dinosaur with flapping metal sheets that have come loose outside, dirty seats and dirtier windows, and it was packed with people. Seven of us squeezed into the back row, and when an eighth wanted to squeeze in, I suffered a momentarily lapse of understanding English and just smiled daftly. Tourists usually get away with that. The ride took two and a half hours for 51 kilometers and cost 17 rupees (27 euro cents).

The express train was one of those magnificent Indian trains that look like prison transports with barred windows. I got a 3AC bunk very similar to the one to Kunming in China; six bunks per compartment, which is open to the aisle. It's less modern than the Chinese one, but very few people in India smoke or spit, and nobody did on the train. It arrived in Chennai at 4:30 in the morning as the sun started to rise.

Chennai (Madras)

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Did I mention that my palace suite in Ooty had a fireplace and a jacuzzi? The Residency Towers room in Chennai has neither, it's more like an economy version of a Western Grand Hotel with lots of marble and columns. But it has a pool. Chennai (formerly Madras) itself is not very attractive; there are a few scattered temples with colorful statues piled high on the roof (the picture shows a small detail), and also a Ramakrishna temple with white columns with pink trim around a swami statue gaily hung with purple flower garlands.

Holy man at a temple entrance in Chennai Colorful Hindu temple in Chennai
Holy man at a temple entrance Colorful Hindu temple in Chennai

It was 42 degrees and humid in Chennai. I really can't stand the heat, the humidity, the pollution, the garbage, the traffic and the incessant honking, the tenacious beggars, the slums, and the barefoot poverty anymore. I feel very tired of southern India, and I suspect I would even if it were 20 degrees cooler. I am told that the weather will stay unchanged for another week, and then the monsoon rains begin.

Chennai's metro People live here.
Chennai's metro People live here.

So I have decided to take a vacation from my vacation and return to Berlin for a while. My flight leaves on Sunday. It's the wrong time of the year to forge ahead here in the tropics; Indonesia will still be there in the fall and much more pleasant. For many years my year was centered on the Siggraph convention; it's a nice thought to center this

Also, my brain is full. I had a fantastic time during these two months, seeing so many places in China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, and I will surely return.

PS - the monsoon did start four days after I left, and flooded much of Bangalore and the southeast Indian coast.

I have deleted my flickr albums because I no longer trust US cloud services.

If you liked this report and would like to read my exotic travel guide, click here.

There is more on India in my 2007 Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Taj Mahal travel report.

Continue to Part 7: Singapore and Malaysia >>>

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