South India Group Tour Highlights 2008

Day (minus) 2

After much preparation and planning I was glad to welcome eight of our ten travelers to Goa today. With some delay getting from the airport to the capital city, Panjim, due to an . . . um . . .arhh road incident involving a truck and a small vehicle, we were pleased to make it to our heritage hotel, Panjim Inn. Set in the historic area of Panjim known as Fontainhas, the several buildings encompassed by the hotel are adjacent to art galleries, and indeed the building where we are staying has some beautiful works of art on display. After settling in over a chai (or black tea as the case may be), we hit the streets for a late afternoon walk. Panjim’s Portuguese heritage is obvious everywhere, from its brightly coloured, art deco government buildings, to its public gardens, and more startling, the giant Church of Immaculate Conception, virginally whitewashed and commandingly perched atop the rise overlooking Panjim (in case Panjimites needed reminding to stay on the straight and narrow). With long flights and a busy last few days taking a toll on us all, we packed in the walking and settled down to a cold Kingfisher (you can guess what type of liquid this is, right?), as well as a surprisingly drinkable cabernet sauvignon, a plate of Red Snapper and a Goan prawn curry. With a glass wine and a full belly, heads started to dip – time for bed.

church of immaculate
Church of Immaculate Conception


hitting the streets
Hitting the streets

Day Minus 1

A 7am breakfast!? It’s supposed to be a holiday. The early start was worth the effort, though with our driver thinking he was Fangio, we could have left half an hour later and still made it to our destination on time. Our destination was Menezes-Braganza house, a beautifully restored former plantation home, which was repossessed by the Indian government – along with all of the land – when the Portuguese left

Goa in 1961, only for it to run into disrepair. After a period of self-imposed exile ended in the ‘80’s, Aida de Menezes Braganza, the elder of the Menezez Braganza clan, returned to the home, fully restoring it to what we imagine would have been something like its original glory. And glory be! 300 year old Chinese vases, too numerable to mention, rosewood chairs ‘the same as Buckingham palace’, and gold-leaved archways – of course it’s real gold.

with aidademenezesbraganza
with Aida de Menezes Braganza

After a whirlwind tour, we were on our way, bound for the hills and a spice plantation. The group was amazed to find the source of many commonly known spices, while I was just pleased to get to the part where we tried the spices, also known as lunch. (The tour concluded with a ladle of cool water being tipped down one’s back – apparently a traditional Goan practice (though I think they are just having some fun with the tourists), as shown in this shot).

spice plantation
Full marks for full attention

water down the spine
Water down the spine (click to enlarge)

A shot of the local cashew-based hooch feni, brewed on site, was not everyone’s cup of hard liquor, but we gave it a shot (sorry). I was on a deadline, having to reach the airport in time to meet our last arriving travelers, Lester and Nella. Despite the traffic’s best attempt to stop us reaching Panjim, we got back in time for an afternoon walk to the Panjim fruit and vegetable and fish and chicken and bangle and spice and . . . well, ‘everything’ market. Many snaps later we found our way out, ready for dinner (we do do more than just eat, actually). Wanting to avoid flour in her diet, Julie politely asked if there was any in the Aloo Ghobli dish, only to be told ‘yes mam, cauliflower’! We thought it was tremendously funny, though the poor waiter didn’t catch the joke. We went on to regale each other with stories of our washing being counted and sorted on the hotel reception counter, “three pairs of knickers, two pairs of undies etc”, with the three-quarter lengths pants causing consternation for the dhobi-wallah – pant or short? A walk home passed the flood lit Church of Immaculate Conception, even more foreboding with the neon red cross atop its steeple, and we were back to Panjim Inn. The option of a South Indian breakfast early on the morrow had raised some interest, but I fear it might be still too early in the trip to attract support for dal, dosa, or idli for breakfast – but that wont stop me trying!

everything market
everything market

neon cross
Church at night

Day 1

Today was the official first day of the trip. We were up and ready to hit the road at 8.30 (well, most of us were). Old Goa was the first port of call, just 30 minutes from out hotel in Panjim. Within the space of a few square kilometers are many massive Portuguese-built churches, all of them 400 to 500 years old. Our first was the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which, being constructed of laterite stone, has a fort like appearance. Inside the contrast could not be greater, with a gilded altar and huge one-piece wooden pulpit being the most striking features. Our good hearted guide spoke so fast and with such a thick Indo-Portuguese accent that we were only able to catch every other word, but it was sufficient to give us the background and history of the church (or at least half of it). We then crossed the road to theChurch of St Francis of Assisi, rather more ascetic with whitewashed exterior and barrel vaulted interior. There was some concern over the quality of the restorative work being done, with a man sitting in the middle of a huge stucco of St Francis, matching pieces one by one like a massive jigsaw. Finally Se Cathedral, the largest of the three. Contained within were 6 separate chapels, one of which was itself large enough to be the working chapel of the church. We left as impressed as one should be with World Heritage listed churches. Next we drove through North Goa, passing a few of the resorts and apartments that draw hundreds of thousands of European charter tourists to Goa every year. Our destination was the former hippy epicenter of India, Anjuna. Its flea market has been in operation since the heady (I mean that literally) of the ‘70s, when many a westerner chose to drop out and live the laid back life offered by the area’s beautiful beaches, fantastic food and generally chilled out attitude to life, (the latter being something Goans are particularly good at, known as sussegud). Today the market attracts all sorts of visitors and vendors: more tie-dyed clothes than I think is healthy for one square kilometer, cheap and expensive jewelry (depending on how much of a sucker the vendor thinks you are), along with a smattering of good quality clothes and crafts. We all went our separate ways for a few hours, and returned with stories of bargains fought and won, along with a range of clothes, jewelry, and thankfully not too much tie-dye gear. We headed back to Panjim and to one of my favourtite local restaurants, the Ritz Classic. Well known for its super-fresh seafood, we all tucked into a thali – a plate with a sample of everything. I had warned of the spicyness of the food, but all managed well and returned an enthusiastic two thumbs up. The afternoon was dedicated to laying low and preparing for our early morning departure the next morning.

Anjuna flea market

Day 2

If you thought a 7am start was bad, today we had to be ready to go at 6!The reason was an 8am train departure from the south Goan city of Madgaon. Everyone was thankful for the air-conditioned carriage that carried us up the Western Ghat mountain range, which runs close to the western seaboard of southern India. Once atop the range, the Deccan plateau stretches east and south, making up a large proportion of the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Our train was bound for Hospet, and we did well to arrive less than an hour late. My good friend in Hampi, Ganga, had waited for more than three hours for our arrival (past travelers may remember Ganga and his daughters Raksheeta and Tulusi). After a cool drink we set out for a little walk, to get a first glimpse of the vast archeological site that covers the former Vijayanagar empire’s capital city. There were a suitable amount of ohhs, ahhs and wows to give me the feeling the group was going to enjoy exploring the ruins. A ‘home-cooked’ dinner at Ganga’s house, cooked by his mother Nala, was greatly enjoyed.

Day 3

With the heat really beating down by 1pm, it was decided we would get underway early. However, our planned 8amgopuram (tower over the entrance gate) of which dominates the tiny village of Hampi. Hanuman was describing a particular area of the temple where a procession takes place, with one of our group – who, for the purposes of identification, is initialed FU – standing at some distance only vaguely catching his words and, seeking clarification, asked if this was really where the circumcision took place. After our laughs had died down, Hanuman gently explained that he had said procession. departure blew out to 8.45 as we lingered over mint tea and masala chai. Our guide, Hanuman, first took us to the Virupaksha temple, the

Customized private South India tour
with guide hanuman

All inclusive private North India travel
feeding the cow

Afterwards we walked down the main bazaar of Hampi, which was once a 750 meter long market selling gold and precious stones. We then climbed into a coracle boat, to be floated down the river towards the best known site in the area, the World Heritage listed Vithala temple. The main feature of the temple is the musical granite pillars that were once played to accompany dancers. Afterwards, a bumpy rickshaw ride brought us to the Mango Tree, a restaurant set amongst a banana plantation, and overlooking the river. Disaster soon struck, however, with Linda dropping her sunglasses down the Indian toilet. She came out and told me what had happened, saying the glasses had gone right down. On closer inspection, however, I could spot one arm of the glasses. Rather than go into details, let’s just say the group decided my actions went beyond the call of duty, saying it was most definitely worthy of a mention here. As I write the group has headed out again to take in some more of the ruins, and to watch the sunset from a good vantage point. All the while the bottle of white wine I have lugged around since my departure fromAustralia is cooling in Ganga’s fridge, ready for their return.

Tonight I am looking forward to sitting back with some friends here, including some of the group, to watch India play

Sri Lanka in the cricket world cup. If the Indian’s lose, they will potentially return home after just the first phase of the tournament, though if that’s the case they may be better served staying where they are or finding another country that will accept them as ‘cricket exiles’. When the cricket is on here, many things come to a standstill, so I am hopping preparations for dinner are underway before the 7pm start! However, like many work situations here in India, there is little chance that the mother of the house would leave us in the lurch.

Travel guide for Rajasthan
gold bazaar of hampi

Tourism in the Himalayas
Ganga and Tulasi

Day 4

A 5.45 start this morning to make it up Muthanga Hill to see the sunrise – the perfect way to start the day. I am yet to find a place in India where no chai wallah (tea seller) exists, and Muthanga Hill at 6.30 was no different. The cry of chai, garam chai is becoming familiar to the group, especially after our first train ride here. It seems most of the country would be content to live on a diet of chai and cricket, though maybe the latter less so after a disastrous defeat and early exist from the world cup overnight. The team will return soon, with many angry fans calling for the sacking of the entire team. The pall of disappointment over Hampi is palpable.

Affordable escorted North India group tours
on Muthanga Hill at sunrise

After breakfast of banana pancakes and more chai, we set out again with Hanuman, our guide. We covered the remainder of the ruins that are close to where we are staying, though many more lay further out from here, in an area of about 60 square kilometers that makes up the former capital (with a great deal more sites yet to be excavated). For lunch we returned to the Mango Tree to try what we didn’t get a chance to yesterday, before heading back to our rooms for rest and packing. We leave here at 6 tonight, in order to connect with our overnight train to Bangalore. Nala and Sashi are cooking up a batch of samosas to be packed in banana leaves (the crockery of choice) for dinner on the train.

Days 5 – 10

Day 5

6am and hello Bangalore! Our train was on time, and all had slept well considering it our first overnight train ride of the trip. We boarded our moving sanctuary – an air conditioned bus – that is to be our transport for the remainder of the trip. Waiting to meet us was the driver, auspiciously named Gandhi. An hour down the road we stopped for our first real south Indian breakfasts: Masala Dosa (crispy rice flour pancake with potato filling), Idli (steamed fermented rice cake), and Vada (fried lentil flour donut), washed down with – you guessed it – chai (and also good south Indian coffee). The Indian-for-breakfast challenged a few of the group, but the Masala Dosa won them over in the end, as I am sure anyone who has traveled to south India would agree.

We reached Mysore mid-morning, and much to my surprise, within half an hour everyone was ready to head out for sightseeing. The energy was short lived however, with the calm and space of our colonial-era hotel luring everyone back. At 6pm we headed back into town for the once a week highlight of Mysore – the 97000 lights of the palace going on. A great carnival atmosphere is also switched on, and all the wallahs of the city come up – snacks, cheap trinkets, and far too many postcards (“10 cards for 100 rupees madam, ok 10 for 50, please madam, first business, ok take 10 for 20, last price 10 for 10”). The hassling and bargaining only added to the experience, with most of the group coming away with 10 postcards.

Travel Wayanad and Pondicherry Group in front of Mysore Palace

Day 6

Today the boss let us sleep in until 8am! After what I am sure for the group was a deliciously western breakfast, we went into town for a wander around the Deveraj Ur fruit and vegetable market. It’s a photographer’s heaven in there, and I am sure we racked up several hundred shots between us. We then moved on to Mysore Palace, where met our guide. It’s fair to say the group was flabbergasted at the grand scale of the kitsch opulence, with ivory inlaid teak doors, Italian marble, Bohemian crystal thrones, and gold howdahs on display. Especially impressive was the stained glass ceiling of the marriage hall, brought from the UK.

Tailor made travel itineraries: Tourism in the Himalayas Deveraj Ur market

After a rather flash lunch in one of the swankier Mysore restaurants, some of the group headed back to the hotel, while others were yet to completely purge their shopping demon. The local goods were on demand, with Mysore being famous for its silk, sandalwood and – incongruously – Titan brand watches, “the Indian equivalent of Rolex”, said the shopkeeper (Ross was particular keen on the latter). Now I am writing just before we reconvene for a late dinner, perhaps with a colonial-style gin and tonic in order (strictly for the anti-malarial properties of the quinine in the tonic).

Day 7

Yesterday we must have offended the god of motor vehicles. Five minutes into our 3 hour drive we had a flat tyre, which luckily Gandhi was able to have replaced within half an hour. After a little bit of to-ing and frow-ing we found a shop to replace the flat tube. We visited the silk weaving factory which, without being un-PC, had the males as interested in the process as the females were interested in the end result. This was a strictly non-shopping day though, so we headed out of town and towards the Wayanad district of north Kerala (if you are looking on the map, find a place called Calicut, which is on the coast in the north of the state of Kerala, and then go directly inland about 100 kms and you might find ‘Sulthan Battery’ or ‘Kalpetta’, and that’s near to where we are). We managed to get an hour into the journey before a toilet break was called for, and on turning the ignition to start the bus all Gandhi got was a meek one turn of the starter motor. ‘Ahh ohh’s’ rang throughout the bus, but I remained calm, despite the fact we were a long way from anywhere, knowing that Gandhi would get us through (the name does inspire confidence). With a little bit of pushing, away she roared and we were back on the road. A few hours later we reached Edakkal Hermitage, our hotel perched high on the Western Ghat mountain range. With a fantastic view over the plantations below, we settled in for a very late lunch, our first taste of Keralan food – jackfruit salad, fish curry, and rasam pepper and tomato soup, besides a few others. Despite the long day everyone seems very pleased to be here, especially with the respite from the heat of Mysore and Hampi; it might even be cool tonight! Some of us are gearing up for the Australian cricket match tonight, a 6am starting time tomorrow and a tiny tv notwithstanding. Sorry for the talk of cricket, but it’s just a part of life here (in fact as I write and it’s almost dark outside I can still hear the shouts of the local lads having a hit just a few hundred meters from here, which will no doubt go on until it is completely dark). I would like to say I am impartial, but of course I am not – go Australia!

Hotel and travel guide for Cochin Allepey Madurai

India custom tours and travel
Lunch at Edakkal and cricket watching

Day 8

Last night everyone was very impressed with the candle-lit (97 on Julie’s count) dinner in a cave. I tried to get a picture, but just couldn’t capture it. The crème caramel for desert wasn’t bad either. Some of us then made rather weak excuses for leaving the table (I just followed along), in order to catch the last few overs of the Australian innings. Luckily it the second half was rained out, which they will play tonight, so we can again stay up and watch it! Another early start this morning (not hugely appreciated by the cricket watchers), in order to reach Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary at the best time for seeing animals. A good decision too, seeing 10 minutes in a wild elephant (in both senses of the meaning) charged out of the bush, trumpets a-blaring. The driver hit the accelerator, putting enough distance between us and elephant for it to feel it to feel it had scared us away. We also spotted barking and spotted deer, Indian bison, a mongoose, and much to Julie’s pleasure, a few species of birds. We returned around 10 to a breakfast of aappam, a soft rice flour pancake, which can be eaten with a gentle breakfast potato curry, or with butter and jam. Yum!

India small group tours and travel Tea stop on the safari

Some of us then immediately started out walking for Edakkal caves, which contain 6000 year old rock carvings. While not breathtaking, it’s amazing to think that the local tribal people are a race that pre-date the dominant Dravidian people of south India (whose origin is unclear, let alone the origin of the tribals). There is also a carving that appears to be of Buddha, suggesting the cave was latterly used by Buddhists as they traveled through the south. I was then a little disappointed to be told we were walking to the top of the mountain (as I was looking forward to having a nice south Indian coffee on return to the hotel). But as a good leader, I did what I was told, and 30 mins of solid uphill walking later, we were staring out over what felt like the whole of north Kerala. Brian was good enough to assist a group of students reach the top, and then of course help them down from the top. Since lunch we have been resting – book reading, bird watching, Ayurvedic massage, and sleeping have all been enjoyed. Tomorrow we head west, over the ghats and down to the coast. The cool will be lost but the Arabian sea will be gained, which I think is a fair trade to make.

India tailor made tours and travel View from room at Edakkal

Day 9

We were pleased to be able to sleep in today – an 8.30 breakfast is quite reasonable. The group is very punctual, and we got away within 10 minutes of the planned departure time. After an hour we reached the edge of the ghats, with what would have been an uninterrupted view all the way to Arabian sea if it wasn’t for the thick haze which tends to obscure the view at this time of the year. By lunch we reached Kannur, on the ‘Malabar’ coast of north Kerala. This is the area where Vasco de Gama landed more than 500 years ago, and which has subsequently been won and lost by the Portuguese, Dutch, British and local rulers. Trade in coffee, tea and spices have been the mainstay of the economy since the Europeans arrived, the control of which was the reason for conflict between the various powers. It’s now a rather sleepy area, though signs of prosperity are rather obvious, with some palatial homes nestled behind coconut palms and laterite-stone fences.

Travel guide for Rajasthan John enjoying the view of the Arabian Sea

After lunch everyone was happy to take it easy, enjoying the view and a late afternoon swim in the (very salty and warm) Arabian sea. For dinner we were again treated to a feast of Keralan vegetable dishes, with beautiful fish fillets, rice and of course pappads. The food over the last four days has been amazing – not to spicy, very healthy, traditional local food. Some of the group are expressing concern that they may not be able to lose weight here as they had hoped!

North India group tour and travel At Kannur Fort

Day 10
This morning a very early start was required in order to catch part of the ‘Theyam’ ritual dance at the nearby temple. Theyam is a mysterious ritual that only takes place in the temples of this immediate area. It involves very elaborate makeup and headdresses, a great deal of movement (I keep wanting to call it ‘dancing’ but it is not a performance, it is an act with important literal and figurative religious importance), and lots of loud drumming. Undertaken by members of particular families in a particular (low) caste, it is unique amongst the manifold manifestations of Hindu faith in that it has pagan and tribal overtones, such as using alcohol and dried fish for offerings made to the gods, rather than the usual fruit and flowers. It is in honour of the God Siva, in the form of Kali, one of the darker, destructive gods of the Hindu pantheon. The main figure in the ritual often enters a state of trance, either as a result of the huge physical exertion required, or as a prerequisite to actually performing the ritual. Worshippers believe that the central figure temporarily embodies a god-like state, thus imbuing the worship and blessing they receive with greater meaning than normal temple worship. In the ritual we saw, the story goes that Siva, being denied relations with his wife Parvati, tells her he will have a child without her help, and proceeds to pull a baby out of his thigh, in the process elongating the child’s head as it is pulled out through his thigh. Visually what we saw was the central figure having a run in with Parvati, and then working himself up to wearing a 20 foot-high headdress (the elongated head of the child), and then running and dancing and jumping on to a low stool, and then finally, incredible, walking around on stilts using little more to support himself and weight of headdress than his big toes! (I am not sure of the meaning of the last part). The amazing thing with Theyam is that the stories are not written down, nor is the meaning fixed or the ritual interpreted in the same way, making it is very difficult to get a handle on what one is seeing. In a way it is a perfect representation of one’s attempt to interpret India!

South India group tour and travel
Guligan headdress

Customized private North India tour
Guligan up close

After our early start this morning, we were a little wiped out by mid-morning. Despite our lethargy, we made took a short drive to the local handloom factory, where they produce beautiful cotton material, most of it bought by Ikea. Linda spotted the material she has been looking for for years, bit the owner was keen to sell her the entire bolt, so after a little negotiating she was the proud owner of 33 meters of heavy cotton. We continued on to Kannur for a visit to the fort and small local history museum. After lunch it was naps and swims all around.

Day 11

This morning we had a nice lazy start to the day. We packed up and the bus took off with our luggage, bound for Cochin, a ten hour drive away. We hung around and had a last swim before taking a train at 2.30, to be met in Cochin later tonight by Gandhi and the vehicle. The train was quite pleasant before we reached Calicut, where far too many people boarded, and now as I write I am squished between a few people. As long as we reach on time (or at least within an hour of) I am happy.

All inclusive North India group travel snapping each other on the train

Day 12 – 15

Day 12
Well we arrived at Cochin right on time last night – all credit to Indian railways. A short drive brought us to the historic area, called Kochi, and our deliciously air-conditioned rooms at fort heritage hotel. The next morning, the group took off with local guide Marcos, taking in India’s oldest church, an Anglican St Francis of Assisi church, the Chinese fishing nets, where some of the group had turn at hauling in the catch (one sardine sized fish), the dutch p

alace, and finally Jewtown, with its ‘antique’ shopping strip. We reconvened at my favourite local café, for a simple lunch of soup and sandwiches, followed by hand-ground and locally roasted coffee and chocolate cake. By 2pm the heat was really on, so most of us enjoyed our cool rooms (well those of us who realised that there was a master switched outside the bedroom which needed to be thrown before the AC could come on – a case of local knowledge).

Travel guide for Rajasthan
Pulling up the Chinese fishing nets

In the evening the group attended a Kathakali performance, a traditional Keralan dance. We then went for a ‘special’ dinner at one of the better hotels, with a table by the pool and live classically Indian music being played in the background. Typically for such an establishment, we waited far too long for our meal – but in the end it was just a comical Faulty Towers-esque experience.

Day 13
We got away by 8.30ish this morning, with a 1 hour drive to Allepey before boarding our houseboat, which we will stay on all day. It’s from the boat that I am writing, with the smell of fish curry wafting down from the galley and a pleasant lake breeze blowing. We catch scenes of daily life, such as the washing being done, and cricket being played on tiny pieces of and reclaimed from the lake, which make for great photos. Julie catches up on her journal and has the binoculars at the ready for any sign of birds; Annette is soaking up the view in between a few sleepy nods of the head; Felicity is sketching each of us in turn; John is catching up on the cricket news; Ross is taking in a few rays from the sun bed at the front of the boat; Nella is enjoying the view (though was disappointed to hear that there about 200 boats in use, and not just our one boat); Lester is snapping away furiously, in collaboration with Brian (they alert each other to good scenes); Linda is buried in her daily Sudoku undertaking; Judi alternatively chats and observes; and I work, of course, though as far as offices go, it’s not bad. The backwater houseboat cruise is actually too beautiful and picturesque for words – so that’s all from me for today.

Travel North Kerala and Hampi
on the backwaters

Homestay Hampi tour
mobile office

Day 14

After leaving the boat yesterday we had a short drive to Palai, a town in the foothills of the western ghats, which is surrounded by huge rubber plantations. The plantations, along with the money sent home by locals working overseas (often as nurses, doctors, dentists and engineers) has allowed families to build quite palatial homes, creating a prosperous feel to the area. Some homes are being turned into ‘homestays’, and it is two such properties where the group is spending tonight and tomorrow night. Half the group (Felicity and Ross, Lester and Nell, Annette and Linda) are with Ann and Alex at ‘Ann’s Homestay’, which is a large no-expense-spared house on a rubber plantation about 20 mins out of town. The family is Syrian Christian, as are many of the rubber planters in the area, and are so hospitable and welcoming. Currently two of Ann and Alex’s daughters are staying with them, along with three of their kids (including Alex jnr and Alex jnr jnr (the first born male of each child is named after their grandfather)), so it really is a homestay.

Hotels in Dharamsala
dinner with Ann and Alex

The other half (the Sharps and Moores) are in Palai at another, distantly related family, also Syrian Christian and rubber planters. Trassey and John have a very old (300 years) home, which is decorated with the most lavish furniture and fittings, including pieces formerly belonging to Maharajas and Maharanis. The meals are a two hour affair, with small servings of ten or more dishes, which added together, make for a gigantic feast.

As far as activities go, today we took a tour of Ann and Alex’s plantation, which also has a huge array of spices and vegetables. Afterwards we went to the site were elephants were working, pulling logs through a rubber plantation which could not be accessed by trucks. Elephants are amazing, so strong yet controlled, patient, and most impressively, able to understand, and in way communicate, with the manhout handler. It was nice to see them doing productive work, as opposed to the way we normally see them, in a zoo or being trained, and this aspect was particularly appreciated by the group.

Travel to Dharamsala & McLeod Ganj
in the rubber plantation with Alex

India tailor made tours and travel
elephant at work

After lunch we visited some small local cottage industries, which survive and carry forward highly developed skills despite cheaper machine made goods. We then spilt into several groups, some shopping, others visiting the local Syrian Christian church.Tomorrow we start early for Madurai, crossing the ghats again. We are aiming to reach Madurai by midday , in the hope of keeping good on my acceptance of an invitation to a wedding. So by this time tomorrow night, no doubt I will have a story or two to tell.

Day 15 We managed to get away from Palai by 7am, only half an hour behind schedule (leaving Ann’s is always delayed by her hugs and posing for photos and requests to come back and see her). Ann and Trassey had packed up a breakfast for us, so we busily gobbled that shortly after departure. We made good time, and with a few quick toilet stops, made it toMadurai by 1pm. The wedding had taken place at 9am , but friends and family were still coming and going – 2000 in all – so it still had the feeling of a wedding. We were lucky to be invited on to the stage for photos with the bride and groom, and then ushered upstairs for wedding meal, served in the traditional south Indian manner on a banana leaf. No knives or forks here – but our practice using our hand (right only please Ross) over the last week stood us in good stead, and I was very proud of everyone’s effort. The groups undoing, however, was the liquid ‘payasam’ desert (cardamom flavoured sago and vermicelli), which was just pored onto the banana leaf – it was like trying to eat water with your fingers. It was great fun!

Tailor made travel to Karnataka
wedding meal

Semi and Assisted independent travel with bride and groom

Later in the day we spent some time at the Gandhi museum, where the piece of clothing that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated is on display, along with many quotes and texts he wrote. We then went on to the Meenakshi temple, which has 33 millions carved or painted images of gods within the temple complex! Its strikingly colourful gopurams rise high above the temple grounds,, and indeed dominate theMadurai skyline. The group wandered around the grounds with the guide, a little dazed from the long day, and a little awe-struck by the scale of the temple. After a nice dinner overlooking the city and the temple, everyone was thoroughly exhausted – I lasted about 5 minutes between getting into my room and falling asleep.

Day 16
A sleep in and late departure was very nice this morning. We drove 2 hours to the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, which is famous for its cuisine and its business people, may of whom have lived and worked in other parts ofAsia. Originally the Chettiars made their money from teak trading with Burma, which they then put into the education of their children, and into their homes – actually more like palaces. The good education they provided paid off as their children went on to become bankers and business people of great acumen, and today Chettiars can be found throughout the world. Some of the mansions have been converted to hotels, and it was one such property that we visited for lunch.

All inclusive travel deals and plans lunch at Chettinad mansion

Another two hours driving brought us to Tanjore, a bustling city of 1.5 million or so. Tanjore has a marvelous temple, built by Raja Raja of the Chola dynasty in 1010. But we left the temple visit for the next day, as I was keen to get to the hotel. The group had no idea of the kind of hotel we were staying in – they have developed a trust that each new place will be something different and worthwhile. Their trust was repaid this time with a resort style hotel on the bank of a beautiful river, complete with pool and riverside restaurant. It didn’t take long for everyone to congregate in the pool: they took to it like Australians to water. We then enjoyed dinner accompanied by live classical Indian music, with a pleasant breeze blowing along the river – it was all very manageable.

Tibetan Buddhist India tours by the pool

Day 17 – 19

Day 17

Those of us who were not templed out headed into town to see the Brageeshwara temple this morning. It was very impressive, with massive granite pillars and stunning stucco work. In order to place the 50 ton crowning piece of granite on the top, an eight kilometer long sand ramp was built, then lined with logs, in order for the stone to be pulled to the top (first the stone had been brought from the quarry site 50 kilometers away using the same method). Much to our guide’s disappointment, we had to hurry along in order to get back to the hotel in time for the scheduled departure time. He kept wanting to pull us aside and surreptitious show us the erotic carvings, which we agreed to with a share of his mischievous smile. We felt very naughty!
Travel to McLeod Ganj
Brageeshwara temple

Running merely an hour late we left Tanjore and headed for the Comrandel coast, which is on the Bay of Bengal. I had arranged for us to have lunch at wonderful beach side hotel at a place called Traquebar, which had a been a Danish colony from 1624 to 1825. The governors residence has now been converted into the hotel where we had lunch. It was a lovely scene and would make a great getaway considering how quiet the area is and how few visitors manage to get there.
Travel guide for Rajasthan
Bungalow on the Beach, Tranquebar

With less than 5 kilometers to Pondicherry, and after a 3 hour drive, a tire blew! We got off and hailed some rickshaws to take us the remaining distance, leaving trusty Gandhi with the vehicle. We reached out hotel in time to drop our day packs and head down to the promenade for sunset, the place thronging with locals who love to stroll and picnic there every evening. After a drink and dinner Gandhi arrived with our luggage, so it ended well.

Day 18

Everyone awoke with a clear determination to shop, especially because I had built Pondi up as the place for it. I put on my very patient hat and we set off for the shops. After a couple hours, and after we had visited the shops I knew of, and I had shown the group the areas where the main action was, I set the group loose on the poor vendors of Pondi, the group having firmly grasped the practice of bargaining. The battle for bargains raged all day, before we reconvened over a chilled Indian Sauvignon Blanc, to swap stories and display the spoils of the day’s toil. We finished the night at an excellent beach front restaurant, turning our appetites loose on the impressive buffet spread – oh the debris! I have never seen such a sustained attack on a dessert buffet. It was a fittingly voluminous meal to end the trip on.
Travel Pondicherry
Pondi hotel

South India day +1We set off at 9 today, with a stop at Mahablaipuram to view the World Heritage listed granite bas relief carvings (including the world’s largest, ‘Arjuna’s Penance’). After lunch we hit the road again, with an hour to go to Chennai airport, in order for most of us to catch onward or homeward flights. Linda, Annette and I are on to Delhi for the start of the North India trip tomorrow, with Kim and Julie arriving from Australia tonight to join us. It’s been – from my perspective at least – a fantastic trip, with great company, lots of highlights and a few manageable challenges along the way (always important). I think I can fairly say that everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and I look forward to a few comments from the group here on the blog.

Stand by for the North India installment!

It is a totally different feeling you get while visiting the southern part of India. The climate, region, cuisine and dialect are vastly different from the other parts of the country. But the magic and aura is still very much the same. The warmth and happiness that people exude is worth all the efforts you put in just to be here. Our exclusive South India tour packages are designed with the sole purpose of showcasing the true image of the region, an image that can inspire you to become creative in your thoughts and adventurous in your mind.South India HolidaysThere is always apictureyou visualize, when you think of India. This image may be true or it may be based on an understanding that might not be completely accurate. There will definitely be certain concerns regarding travel, especially for independent women travelers. But that is where India Unbound remains different from other regular tour operators. The best feature of our travel to South India ideologies is that two of our partners are based in this country itself. That means you will not be relying on an unknown third party. They have been through all the tours devised and know exactly where one might get stuck. You have experience to fall back on, which is a very safe place to be.Group or Independent Travel

For our client’s convenience, we have designed both guided as well as independent tours to South India. Here our guests have the option of travelling in a group, which means safety in numbers and following a set itinerary. The other option is independent Tamil Nadu travel where we will undertake the whole process of booking accommodations and flights so that all your bookings are done beforehand. You will be travelling independently but your comfort will be taken care of and you can use your own time and speed to travel and enjoy the local flavors. Both these tours offer a different feel of India and we are sure with our support you will be able to enjoy either one of them.