PTC Through Southern India: Goa

[ptcPhoto filename=”Goa.png” title=”Goa Map” caption=”Candolim, Goa – India” position=”right”]

After a few days in Hampi we were thoroughly templed-out, so we headed for the coast to India’s biggest resort area. Unlike the coast near Kannur, Goa has genuine beach towns with soft sand, bikinis, and fruity drinks. Goa is not a single town but rather an entire state that runs along a 100KM stretch of coastline. We settled on the town of Candolim for our stay in Goa mainly due to it’s convenient location and reputation as a laid-back destination (we weren’t up for all the rave parties further south).

We had a hotel in mind, but we missed our bus stop and ended up at the opposite side of town. This proved to be a lucky break as we decided to check out some hotels on the north end of the beach and found a paradise among the palm trees called Casa Baptista. For a mere Rs.500 ($9) a night we were a 2-minute walk down a trail to the beach, had a large clean room, amazing shower with 24-hour hot water, and a first for India, a refrigerator!! This small luxury allowed us to go to a store and buy groceries and keep drinks cold. Even more incredible, our hotel had real bacon for breakfast, the first of our trip! Finally a cure for our bacon withdrawal shakes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GoaBreakfast.jpg” title=”Breakfast in Goa” caption=”Bacon!!” position=”center”]

We had a number of plans for our 4-night stay in Candolim including taking a tour of a nearby spice plantation, taking a cooking class, and visiting the Candolim Fort which affords beautiful views of the surrounding area…we did none of it! We fell in love with the beach and simply relaxed.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GoaUmbrella.jpg” title=”Beach Chairs in Candolim” caption=”Candolim Beach” position=”center”]

Although it certainly was relaxing, our beach getaway wasn’t exactly a trip to the Caribbean. The majority of the tourists to Goa are Europeans, which equated to quite a few thong bikinis and a fair amount of toplessness. This behavior is quite shocking to Indians, since women here don’t even expose their shoulders and knees, even at the beaches. As a result, the beach at Candolim was teeming with swarms of vacationing male Indians who come to Goa to gawk at the nearly naked Europeans, cell phone cameras in hand.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GoaMen.jpg” title=”Prowlers” caption=”A few of our fully clothed Indian friends prowling the beach” position=”center”]

Also, no tourist destination in India would be complete without touts. Some of the worst variety, the child tout, will bug you regularly to buy their bracelets while women ask you repeatedly if you want massages or snacks. We did find that the number decreases dramatically if you venture further north on the beach. The area near our hotel was essentially tout-free.

Overall, despite the gawkers and touts, we highly recommend Goa and wish we could have stayed longer. But we were still in southern India and had a lot of ground to cover before the Elephant Festival up north in Jaipur.

PTC Through Southern India: Hampi

The Ruins at Hampi

It was hard for us to leave Mysore, our favorite city in India so far, but we did have a schedule to keep. The next stop on our sprint through southern India was Hampi, the 14th century capital of the Vijayanagar empire and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Set amongst fields of picturesque boulders, hundreds of well-preserved temples and other ruins remain from the original city.

The 160-foot tall Virupaksha temple dominates the skyline of the ancient complex. Dedicated to the god Shiva, this temple has been in operation since the 7th century, predating and surviving the Vijayanagar Empire that grew around it.

[ptcPhoto filename=”VirupakshaTemple.jpg” title=”Virupaksha Temple” caption=”Virupaksha Temple” position=”center”]

Typically we avoid entrance fees for temples because so many are free to visit, but the Virupaksha temple has a resident elephant named Lakshmi so we decided to part with the Rs.10 ($0.16) and the typical shoe hostage tax to pay her a visit. Lakshmi is supposed to give you a blessing by draping her trunk around your head in exchange for Indian coins. I was rejected despite my donation.

One of the nice things about Hampi is that aside from a few major temples, the entire site is free to visit and you can take as many photos as you like. Touts like to hang out around the Hampi Bazaar near the Virupaksha Temple, so we decided to hire a couple bicycles and explore the ruins outside of the town center for a peaceful day of sightseeing.

[ptcPhoto filename=”VitthalaTemple.jpg” title=”Vitthala Temple” caption=”Vitthala Temple” position=”center”]

Even with bikes it was very hard to see everything that Hampi had to offer. It doesn’t help that the only available map of the site is not in any way to scale, so looking back we missed many of the town’s main sights. Nevertheless, we throughly enjoyed visiting the ruins and it was a relatively quiet reprieve from India’s larger cities.

Only a short walk from town is the slow-moving Tungabhadra River, where you can take boat rides with locals. If you stayed on long enough, you’d find yourself floating out to the Arabian Sea.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TungabhadaraRiver.jpg” title=”Tungabhadra River” caption=”Riding on the Tungabhadra River” position=”center”]

Hampi Town

According to the Indian government, there is no town of Hampi and all of the residents and businesses around the ancient city are there illegally. Many have lived there for decades providing facilities for tourists to sleep and eat, and for years the government chose to turn its head and ignore the many businesses being built there. This all changed in 2011 with the first round of government evictions and demolitions. But the town was quickly built up again as soon as the bulldozers rode off into the sunset.

A couple weeks before we arrived, the government’s demolition crews came back and once again tore down many of the restaurants, hotels, and homes along the Hampi Bazaar. Residents only had minutes to evacuate. By the time we arrived, most of the debris had been removed and aside from a very deserted Hampi Bazaar we actually didn’t immediately realize what had happened only a couple weeks prior. Many of the restaurants were quickly recovering, finding new temporary locations to keep their businesses running. Food options were still limited, since many did not yet have full kitchens. The jury’s still out on why the Indian government has taken these actions, but one theory is that they’re trying to “encourage” more upmarket tourism in the area.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MangoRestaurant.jpg” title=”New Mango Tree Restaurant” caption=”The newly relocated Mango Tree Restaurant ” position=”center”]

It’s unknown what the future of this site will hold. As it continues to gain in popularity with tourists, the government will likely take more interest in the town. At the moment Hampi is still a very affordable attraction devoid of any commercialization, so we recommend going sooner rather than later!

Snapshot Sunday: Blue Sky and Tea in Darjeeling

[ptcPhoto filename=”Darjeeling640.jpg” title=”Happy Valley” caption=”View of Darjeeling from Happy Valley Tea Estate, West Bengal – India” position=”center”]

Rising to a height of 6,800 feet, Happy Valley Tea Estate operates one of the highest tea factories in the world. They’ve been producing Darjeeling’s famous brew since 1854, and some of their bushes have been around for more than a century.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

PTC through Southern India: Mysore

Located in the state of Karnataka, Mysore was one of our favorite cities in all of India. With its lively marketplace, wide sidewalks and some major sights, it’s visitor-friendly and full of things to do. We arrived really early in the morning and walked around before the city woke up for the day, when all was quiet and the streets were empty. It was neat to see how different a place can look after it unfolds to life with the hustle and bustle of thousands of people starting their day.

If you make your way down there, make sure to visit the restaurants along Sayyaji Rao Road for some great south Indian food – especially masala dosas and thalis! Indra Café’s Paras was one of our top picks there, right across from the Devaraja Market.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SouthIndianBreakfast.jpg” title=”South Indian Breakfast” caption=”Yum! South Indian Breakfast” position=”center”]

And make sure to skip Hotel Dasaprakash, whose staff refer to guests as “inmates”, house gigantic beehives, and argue over providing tiny bars of soap.

[ptcPhoto filename=”inmates.jpg” title=”Inmates” caption=”Hotel Inmates” position=”right”]

There is a main power switch outside each room in the hallway, and wardens walk around knocking on doors to see if you’re there. If you aren’t (or if you don’t answer), they cut the power meaning that you can’t charge any of your devices unless you’re in the room. Happily it’s in a great neighborhood near the market that has several wine shops and a ton of restaurants.

Mysore Palace

We weren’t expecting to fall in love with Mysore Palace, but it ended up being one of the more remarkable things we saw in India. Construction of the palace was completed in 1912, and as one of the most popular tourist attractions in India it now hosts 2.7 million visitors each year. The palace was built for the Wodeyars, the royal family of Mysore that ruled for over seven centuries. It is one of the finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture, blending together Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic building styles. We thought it rivaled Versailles in terms of elaborate displays of wealth and intricate workmanship.

[ptcPhoto filename=”day_palace.jpg” title=”Mysore Palace” caption=”Heading into the palace” position=”center”]

We visited the palace of Mysore twice – once during the day, and then on a Sunday evening when they light up the entire complex (a feat that requires some 98,000 bulbs) and allow visitors to enter the grounds for free.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MysorePalaceLights.jpg” title=”All lit up” caption=”The palace all lit up” position=”center”]

Inside the gates you will also find twelve Hindu temples; the most impressive is the large Shwetha Varahaswamy Temple built for Varaha, the third avatar of Lord Vishnu. Located at the southern edge of the complex, the elaborately carved outside walls showcase busty, ornamented goddesses that dance their way up the striking tiered structure.

[ptcPhoto filename=”palace_temple.jpg” title=”Palace Temple” caption=”Exterior of the Varaha Temple” position=”center”]

Unfortunately the security guards inside the palace itself are extremely firm about the “no photos” policy. We were able to bribe the guard at the entrance so that we didn’t have to check our cameras, but strategically placed guards made sure no photos were taken. It was painful not being able to document the exquisite artistry, from the brightly painted cast iron pillars, to the peacock-inspired stained glass and corresponding mosaic tiled floors, to the golden doors whose gallant elephants were hammered in by hand. Other impressive and undocumented sights include a magnificent wooden elephant howdah (sort of an elephant saddle) decorated with 84 kilograms (185 pounds) of gold, and rosewood doors inlaid with ivory in tiny flower designs that echo the craftsmanship found at the Taj Mahal.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MysorePalaceNightPano.jpg” title=”Pano” caption=”Panorama of the palace at night” position=”center”]

Since we can’t show you the interior of the palace, I guess you’ll just have to go check it out when you have the chance. Don’t forget to pick up an audio guide, which is included in the Rs.200 ($3.50) ticket price for foreign tourists.

Around Mysore Palace

Outside the palace you’ll find the usual souvenir stands and a number of rickshaw drivers who repeatedly tell you which gate to enter, as though you couldn’t possibly figure it out on your own. There are also a number of children who try to make the hard sale on wooden fans and cry out, “But it’s sandal!!” (meaning sandalwood) when you politely refuse to buy one. Our trusty audio guide at the palace informed us that sandalwood trees are a threatened species meaning its use is now strictly regulated. So we think they may have been ill informed.

If you can break free from the line of children following you along, stop by a cane press for cup of fresh sugar cane juice. If you ask nicely, they may let you try your hand at pressing the stalks yourself.

[ptcPhoto filename=”cane.jpg” title=”Sugar Cane Press” caption=”DIY sugar cane juice” position=”center”]

Chamundi Hill

From Mysore you can see the prominent Chamundi Hill, three kilometers east of the city. A Rs.15 ($0.30) bus ride will get you to the top, and the walk down provides a nice dose of fresh air and light exercise. There isn’t a ton to see up there aside from another temple and some hazy views of the city. The steps themselves were the main attraction for us. About halfway down there’s a large Nandi (Lord Shiva’s bull) that was carved out of solid rock in 1659. The statue is covered with a mixture of ghee (butterfat) and coconut husk charcoal, giving it a flaky black appearance.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Nandi.jpg” title=”Nandi” caption=”Nandi the bull” position=”center”]

Also on the way down you’ll see Hindus climbing the 1008 steps to the top. Some women stop and anoint each and every stair with dots of turmeric and kumkum powder, paying tribute to a holy place of pilgrimage.

[ptcPhoto filename=”steps.jpg” title=”Steps” caption=”A long walk up” position=”center”]

At the bottom of the hill we ran into a jovial family of monkeys. It seems they’ve become completely desensitized to humans, and didn’t mind as we spent some time photographing their newest addition.

[ptcPhoto filename=”baby.jpg” title=”Baby Monkey” caption=”The smallest monkey ever” position=”center”]

Overall we had a great time in Mysore – definitely pay this city a visit if you find yourself in southern India!

Snapshot Sunday: Prayer Flags in Darjeeling

[ptcPhoto filename=”TibetanFlags640.jpg” title=”Prayer Flags” caption=”Prayer Flags in Darjeeling, West Bengal – India” position=”center”]

Adorned with a Hindu Shiva temple, Observatory Hill in Darjeeling is also criss-crossed by thousands of prayer flags. Tibetans believe that when the flags are blown by the wind, the prayers and mantras written on them will spread goodwill and compassion into all surrounding space.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.