Tamil Nadu, February 2016 (3 weeks)

Tamil Nadu, February 2016 (3 weeks) (with start and finish in Kochi, Kerala)

Route: Kochi Airport – Kochi – Madurai – Rameswaram – Trichy – Thanjavur – Chidambaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Mahabalipuram – Chennai – Coonoor – Kochi

General

We travelled mostly by train, sometimes by bus. Most train tickets were booked in advance on https://www.cleartrip.com/. Since then it became possible to book Indian train tickets directly on the official railway site https://www.irctc.co.in/. See http://www.seat61.com/India.htm for information on Indian train travel, including setting up a booking account from abroad. As usually, http://erail.in/ was perfect for looking up train connections, fares and tickets availability.

Travelling by bus did not require booking tickets in advance.

Guidebook  

We used Rough Guide’s “South India” and Lonely Planet chapters on Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The RG was much better on sights and cultural context while the LP a bit better on practical information.

ROUTE:

Kochi Airport

We flew to Kochi airport by Air Berlin (partly operated by Etihad) for a bargain price of less than 400 euros from Krakow, Poland. The airport is located in Nedumbassery, 1,5 hrs by bus from Ernakulam and Fort Kochi. There are facilities for the arrival with e-Tourist Visa and the immigration control went smoothly.

We stayed the first night in nearby Nedumbassery: Sapphire Inn, booked via booking.com, 1450 Rs./dbl ensuite, 15 min walk from airport. The place is non-descript and would cost less than 1000 Rs in other places but it is clean enough and good for late arrival or early departure. There is a restaurant on the premises.

Airport to Fort Kochi – 1,5 hrs by a regular comfortable AC bus, 80 Rs.

Fort Kochi

We stayed in two places in Fort Kochi:

– Lazar Homestay, in a lane off Njaliparambu Junction, 5 min behind Santa Cruz Basilica ,1000 Rs for a very comfortable ensuite double (booking recommended, they were full when we tried to stay there on our way back);

– Beach House, a homestay on, KJ Herschel Rd, opp. Armed Forces Tribunal. Contrary to the name there is a military area between the place and the beach. Next door there is a more visible “Tag und Nacht” sign. Walkable distance from St Francis Church, enter the road turning south at the Old Bristow Hotel and walk some 400 meters. A basic small room was 500 Rs for multiple days, 600 Rs for one day + 100 Rs for late checkout at 5 p.m. A nice balcony with seating area. The owner’s wife cooked us a great dinner – much better and cheaper than in Fort Kochi restaurants, incl. fresh seafood.

Fort Kochi turned out to be a tricky place to change money. There are several moneychanger shops in the touristy central district but some of them offered bad rates. Shop around and compare.

As it was our second visit to Kochi (the first ones was back in 2010), we were rather selective in visiting sights. We took a ferry across the strait to Vypeen with its old Portuguese-style church and went to Ernakulam to look for the less-visited Kadavumbagam synagogue (recognizable by the big sign of “Cochin Blossoms” shop operating on the premises). On the way back we shopped for spices in Mattancherry district.

Practicalities:
– rickshaw from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam Junction railway station was 250 Rs

– the airport bus departs from the corner of River Rd and KB Jacob Rd, near the bus stand and opp. Vypeen jetty. There is a sign with bus schedule there. Last afternoon buses: 4 pm, 5.30 pm, 6.15 pm, 7 pm. Takes ca. 2 hrs to the airport, comfortable and AC, 80 Rs.

From Kochi we went to Madurai by overnight train. Tickets booked in advance on Cleartrip.

Madurai

Accomodation: Hotel Keerthy, walking distance from the train station and to the temple, 1400 Rs for a decent AC double, breakfast included. Clean. Wifi at the reception only, nearby Chentoor had wifi on the roof terrace.

The main sight of Madurai was obviously the famous and truly impressive Meenakshi temple. Entry is free for visitors, no cameras are allowed, only mobile phones. There is a 50 Rs photo fee

From Madurai we did an interesting half-day trip to the nearby town of Tiruparankundram (8 kms, 170 Rs by rickshaw, 9 Rs by local bus). Apart from the main temple in the town centre we climbed a hill with the Sufi mausoleum Sikander Dargah on top of the rock and the Shiva temple somewhat lower on the rock (signposted by a sign in Tamil with a fish).

Madurai to Rameswaram – 4 hrs by passenger train, 35 Rs, tickets bought at the station before departure. Seats are taken on the first come first served basis, so it is a good idea to arrive to the station at least half an hour before departure or even earlier to grab a window seat. The train has toilets, chai, water and snacks are sold at some stations.

Rameswaram

Accomodation: Sri Saravana Lodge on Middle Rd, near west temple entrance. 900 Rs non-AC, clean, good restaurant on the premises.

Rameswaram to Trichy – by passenger train, 7 hrs, 55 Rs.

Trichy (Tiruchirappali)

Accomodation: Hotel Ashby, 750 Rs for a standard room (non-AC), 950 Rs for a much better “de-luxe” room. Dilapidated but has some old time charm. Bar (beer 216 Rs), wifi. Walking distance from the train station and central bus stand.

Useful city bus no. 1 linked Trichy central bus stand with the Rock Fort (get off at the big neo-Gothic Lourdes church) and the Srirangam temple complex.

Trichy to Thanjavur – by passenger train, 15 Rs, 1 hr 15 min.

Thanjavur

Accomodation: Hotel Yagappa (http://www.hotelyagappa.in/), close to the railway station, 990 Rs for an AC double room, small room but very clean and nice. Bar with beer for 200 Rs.
Thanjavur Palace all-in ticket was 200 Rs + 100 Rs camera fee.

Thanjavur-Chidambaram – by train, sleeper class, 2 hrs, 140 Rs, no problem getting tickets at the station just 1 day in advance.

Chidambaram

Accomodation: Hotel Saradharam (http://www.hotelsaradharam.co.in/), opp. bus stand, 1100 Rs non-AC double, incl. breakfast, comfortable room with a balcony. A busy restaurant on the premises and bar upstairs.

Chidambaram – Pondicherry, by bus, 2 hrs, 42 Rs.

Pondicherry
Accomodation: after seeing several places in the budget category being quite overpriced, we settled for a bit more upmarket Hotel Park Sun (www.hotelsunparkpondy.com), corner Rangapillai str and Ambour Salai (the border between European and Indian parts of the town), opp. BSNL. Priced 2000 Rs for a very large and comfortable room, 1500 Rs for a smaller one, both very clean. A nice French-themed pastry shop with cafe and croissants on the ground floor.
Rickshaw from the bus stand cost us 100 Rs down from initial ridicilous 300 Rs, but still too much.

Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai, bus every 30 min or so, 3 hrs, 47 Rs.

Tiruvannamalai

Accomodation: Hotel Arunachala (http://www.hotelarunachala.in/), 990 Rs non-AC room, nice and clean, right at the temple entrance, good south Indian veg restaurant on the premises.
An alternative on the main road – Nala Residency, 1200 Rs non-AC room, from 1800 AC room, bar, multi-cuisine non-veg restaurant.

We started hiking up the holy mountain of Arunachala but failed to reach the top. From Skandasraman there are signs “way to top” and a signposted path but it’s hard scramble on the rocks (shoes definitely required, not to be done in sandals). There is a great view of the city and temple after first 50 m or so from Skandasraman.
There is a very nice walk on the slope of Arunachala between Skandasramam cave and the Sri Ramanasram ashram. Further from the ashram the inner Pradakshana (a path circumambulating Mount Arunachala) was sadly closed and no more signposted/accessible. Only the outer Pradakshana along the main road remained accessible at the time of our visit. A good English language guidebook to the Pradakshana was available for 60 Rs at a bookshop right next to Arunachala hotel.

Tiruvannamalai to Mahabalipuram

Tiruvannamalai to Chennai Mofussil bus stand, by bus, ca. 100 Rs, 4 h 15. The bus bypasses Chengalpattu, so reaching Mahabalipuram by getting of earlier would be complicated.
Chennai Mofussil to Mahabalipuram 2 hr 40 Rs. Plenty of departures, any bus marked “ECR” going to Pondy. Drops off at a junction some 1 km from the center of Mahabalipuram.

Mahabalipuram

Accomodation: Bob Marley’s Café, 800 Rs for a simple room with a balcony directly facing the beach.
Beer 250 Rs, seafood mostly 300 Rs up for dish, with catch of the day costing often ca. 1000 Rs for 2 persons (negotiable), annoying hidden extra – 100 Rs for plain rice.
A better place to eat nearby was Luna Magica, straight on the beach, less expensive than other restaurants we tried – beer 200 Rs, seafood portions more generous.

Sea Shore Temple + 5 Rathas – entry 250 Rs (official Archeological Survey of India site).

A remarkable sight near Mahabalipuram is the Madras Crocodile Bank & Herpetology Centre (http://www.madrascrocodilebank.org/) with most species of those cuddly creatures displayed and explained in an informative way. Attached is a place run by local snake catchers’ cooperative displaying venomous snakes used for farming venom for antiserum.
Entry fee 40 Rs. Take any brown bus (green buses don’t stop at the entrance) along the ECR towards Chennai, 12 or 15 Rs.

Mahabalipuram – Chennai
There was much confusion at the Mahabalipuram bus stand. We were informed on buses to Chennai the previous afternoon only to be told that there were “no buses” when we arrived with our luggage on the other day. Presumably it was a deal with rickshaw drivers as one of them was standing just over the guy in the bus enquiry office and offered us a ride to the junction with ECR for 50 Rs.
Finally we gave up, went to the next corner and took a rickshaw to the ECR junction for 20 Rs. A passing bus arrived within 5 min. The bus was going to Koyambedu (40 Rs) but we left at Guindy (some 2 hrs from Mahabalipuram) and took a local train to central Chennai from there.

Chennai
We got off the train at Park station and first tried to find accomodation near the Chennai Central station. Bad idea, as almost all hotels there were unwilling to take foreigners and the only one willing (Sri Balaji) offered a very dirty non-AC room for 600 Rs. We went to the Egmore area where hotels opposite the bus station were more willing to deal with foreigners. Finally we stayed in Raj Residence in Kennet Lane, opp. Egmore station. It turned out to be a very bad idea. Pretended to be “de luxe”, charging ca. 1300 Rs for standard and 1550 Rs for “executive” room. “Standard” was very dirty, “executive” seemed a bit better and larger, so I talked them down to 1300 Rs for the “executive”.  The bed sheets were dirty and the whole room turned out to be infested by bedbugs. Stay away!

In Chennai we visited Mylapore by suburban train (direction  Velachery, get off at Thirumailar), alternatively bus 21G goes there from Broadway bus stand. The San Thome Cathedral, Kapaliswara Temple and Luz Church are longish walking distance from each other, otherwise bus 12B plies between them.

Chennai – Coonoor
Reached by the night train (Nilgiri Exp) from Chennai to Mettupalayam and the famous Nilgiri toy train from Mettupalayam. We even went as far as Ooty and then back to Coonoor to cover the whole toy train route. Booked tickets much in advanva via Cleartrip.

The first class on the toy train was not much better than the second. If possible, seat on the left side for best views. There was toilet on the toy train but it took several long breaks at small stations to water the locomotive and toilets were available at the stations.

Coonoor
Accomodation: we decided to take something more upmarket and stayed at the Vivek (http://www.hotelvivek.com/), near Bedford Circle. Standard rooms 1300 Rs (hot water only in the morning, no breakfast), de luxe from 2060 Rs (hot water 24 hrs, breakfast included). Very clean and nice.A few of the cheaper de luxe rooms have great views of the town. Good restaurant (mains 200 Rs, including non-veg) and bar attached (beer 200 Rs). 80 Rs by rickshaw from the train station, short walk to the Bedford Circle.

From Coonoor we did a great walk across tea estates, along a motorable road but with not much traffic. From Coonoor to Dolphin Nose via Lamb Rock, ca. 12 km + 2 km detour to Lamb’s Rock. Plenty of beautiful views and great tea plantations all over the way. The best place to enter the plantations and walk among tea fields is at Glendale sale point, some 1 km before Dolphin’s Nose.
The bus back to town does not reach Dolphin Nose but stops at Adderley tea pluckers village some 200 meters earlier. Bus timings back from Dolphin Nose were 3.45 and 5.30 p.m.

We also identified a hike to consider next time: the Droog Fort Trek (Bakasura Malai) – some 13 kms from Coonoor, to the very prominent peak on the opposite side of the access valley, as seen from Lamb’s Rock. Mostly through Nonsuch tea estate.

From Coonoor we took a taxi to Coimbatore Junction (1400 Rs, 2 hrs+, arranged on previous evening at the taxi stand on Bedford Circle) in order to catch our train to Ernakulam (previously booked on Cleartrip) for our flight back from Kochi airport.

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