In India, the distances between cities are vast and transportation options (and comfort levels) vary greatly. When deciding our trip approach, we knew comfort was paramount to ensure all of us, mostly the kids, enjoy the experience. In the end, we decided to hire a private driver and use the support of an established tour operator to assist us in getting around south and north India. Our trip was divided into two parts: 10 days in the south (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and one week in the north (Rajasthan and Agra.) Our tour operator arranged a local guide to introduce us to the historical significance and culture in each city we planned to visit. This helped us tremendously to receive a deeper appreciation, from a local perspective, of the food, sites, and sounds of places we visited.
KARNATAKA (cities: Bangalore and Mysore)
Arriving at 2am, after a 14 hour flight from Montenegro via Abu Dhabi, we made our entry into India.
We received our e-visas onsite upon arrival at Bangalore International Airport. It wasn’t too complicated, however, we did spend extra time trying to convince officials our itinerary stretched from south to north India. The kids (Chloë especially!) were exhausted at this point and didn’t understand why we couldn’t just leave the airport immediately. At one point, when we called Chloë over to the counter for her visa photo, she was so angry she completely ignored us, and did the minimum to get her picture taken. She was not impressed, nor were we, at 2am in a foreign country trying to get our paperwork in order so we can leave the airport to start our trip.
Our tour representative and driver met us at arrivals in a tourist mini-van (Elliot perked up when he saw our name on a board). We stepped into the vehicle and were off to our hotel in Bangalore. By this time it was 4am and roads were already starting to get busy. Adding to the traffic congestion, a marathon was starting shortly with a few streets already barricaded en route to our hotel. As a side note, dashed lines and one-way streets are mere suggestions in India. Not one vehicle (including tuk tuks and motorcycles) respected those markings or signs on the highway. It was a quick introduction to Indian road rules.
We checked into our hotel and went straight to bed.
We didn’t get up until 2pm later that day. Feeling refreshed, we were ready to experience the sights and sounds of India. It was still hard to believe we finally arrived. India was the first Asian country on our itinerary and in so many ways, the change in scenery (and senses) was refreshing from the metropolis of European countries we’ve travelled through so far.
Rather than calling our driver, we felt adventurous and flagged down the first tuk tuk to guide us to a local restaurant. We haven’t eaten since arriving and didn’t feel for room service with all of Bangalore at our doorstep! The hotel suggested 40 INR would bring us to a nice lunch spot, so we had that in mind when speaking to our driver, however, he quoted 150 INR instead. Finally we negotiated to our 40 INR, but that included visits to his “recommended” shops. That’s ok–it was a good educational experience for the kids to see first hand the many layers of commission throughout India.
At lunch the kids tried their first (of many) mango lassis (fresh mango, curd and sugar) and it was love at first sip!
Mysore was our next destination, a 4-hour drive from Bangalore, known for premium silk, Hindu temples and the gorgeous Mysore Palace. Upon arriving in Mysore, you immediately felt life slow down as everyone seemed more relaxed than the big city, big lights of Bangalore we just left.
While in Mysore, we visited the 1,000 year old Chamundeshwari Temple, located 3,000 feet high atop Chamundi Hill. We bought jasmine flowers along the way as an offering to the temple. As a sign of respect, every visitor removed their shoes before entering. Inside was incredibly crowded with people trying to exchange their offering for a blessing from the priest. The kids held up well, while jumping at the chance to take off their shoes to go barefoot with others through the temple. We placed our flower donation, said a prayer and quickly shuffled through as many more people were waiting for their turn behind us. Outside we purchased a red and gold thread from a priest to symbolize protection from evil and a further appreciation of Hindu faith and traditions.
As Mysore’s known for its brass art work, we finished our visit with a purchase of a solid brass elephant…. weighing in at 7kg. Basically, a small child was added to our travel group simultaneously. We were going to ship it back to Canada but the quote was quite expensive, so we decided to travel with it to Kathmandu and try shipping from there. We named our new travelling member Maya. Maya the elephant from Mysore.
TAMIL NADU (cities: Ooty)
After Mysore, our next stop was a hill station town called Ooty, known as the “queen of the hill stations” and a resort town for Indians wanting to escape the summer heat. To get there, we drove through Mudumalai National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. As we drove through the sanctuary, our driver asked the kids to pay close attention to outside. We didn’t expect to see any animals…until the elephants came marching (hurrah, hurrah!) out of the trees! So exciting to see them in the wild. Then came lots and lots of black and white monkeys and, as on cue, the deer seem to come out of nowhere to greet us too. No tigers, though – next time.
The final drive to Ooty consisted of tight, narrow hairpin turns…all 36 of them (there are warning signs along the way counting down each remaining turn). Stomach turning for sure, especially for Elliot, however, it offered a few spectacular views of the entire valley below.
Ooty in the winter season (as it was now) can get quite chilly. It was 34 degrees when we left Mysore, a sharp contrast to the 13 degrees when we arrived in Ooty.
While in Ooty we wanted to take a ride on the popular Nilgiri Mountain Railway, known as a toy train from Ooty to Coonoor–similar to the infamous toy train in Darjeeling. The train ride was just 1 hour moving through breathtaking views of the valley, passing through tea plantations, eucalyptus forests and tiny villages. It was a mix of locals and tourists (both Indian and foreigners) excited for the experience.
After our train ride, our driver picked us up in Coonoor and drove us 30km in the other direction to Needle Rock Point, the highest viewpoint in the Gudalur region. The entrance was immediately off the highway. After a short hike along a dirt path, the manic vehicle noise suddenly disappeared and was replaced with a calm summer breeze offering views across the forest canopy below. It was a magical time to spend a late afternoon while surrounded by the beauty of south India.
KERALA (cities: Munnar, Thekkady, Alleppey, Kochi)
Our next destination was Munnar. Our driver suggested we wake up earlier to start our drive, but we weren’t in a hurry and eventually agreed to a 10am start. Little did we know the estimated 5-hour drive would be 10-hours long. We didn’t reach our hotel until well past 8pm. The last bit of driving was along single-lane, switch-back roads. The ascent was more gradual than Ooty, but just as stomach-turning as its hairpin turns. If that wasn’t enough, fog rolled in for our last leg and turned the drive from an exciting single-track with cliff drop-offs to a nerve racking drive with minimum visibility and buses continuously passing in the dark. Then suddenly peaking through the fog you started to see high mountains and lush greenery–we made it to Kerala!
The next morning, after our 10 hour drive the previous day, we wanted to take it easy. We had a few things planned on our itinerary, but decided to clear our schedule and only explore the famous tea plantations. The hotel strongly recommended we rent a 4×4 jeep to take us to the top of the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate. The 100-year old tea plantation, the world’s highest tea plantation, is located 8,000-ft above sea level.
The drive to get there was an adventure in itself–the bumpiest ever, up switchbacks through muddy and boulder strewn roads, climbing in and out of clouds, and eventually to the top. The most picturesque landscape we’ve ever seen. Incredibly lush, green and gorgeous–the place where the perfect cup of chai originates from!
After rejuvenating in Munnar, our next stop was Thekkady for traditional Ayurvedic Kerala massages! Kerala is famous for Ayurveda drawing people from all over the world to this region, specifically Thekkady, for Ayurvedic treatments. We couldn’t miss it.
The massage was 1.5 hours long. Two private rooms for us: girls in one and boys in another. You get fully undressed with a single piece of cloth to cover your bottom. They start at your head, then back, legs, feet, stomach and back to your face. The Ayurvedic oil is heated before being applied to the body, with natural compounds in the oil absorbed into the skin by way of the massage. It’s neither gentle nor soothing–basically getting slapped across your entire body. Just when you think you’ve had enough, they move to the next body part and begin the intense routine again. The end is a steam bath to open your pores to further absorb the oils. Then a final rubdown to remove any oils before you get dressed. The process was quite painful….but relaxing (if that’s possible). Kids had the same treatment and hated us for it!
We had an early departure from Thekkady to make it to Alleppey by noon. Alleppey is the hub for houseboat cruises along the Kerala backwaters and that’s exactly what we planned to do.
As we boarded our boat, we received a glass of fresh coconut water (after all Kerala is the “land of coconut”!) from the staff. As a pleasant surprise, we had the entire houseboat to ourselves. This allowed our kids to run freely and gave us a breather to take off our shoes, relax, and really enjoy the Kerala backwaters.
Shortly after we boarded, lunch was served. The kids inhaled theirs and some of our too. Freshly caught local fish, Kerala rice (different than basmati rice, larger, thicker and whiter), dhal, beet coconut chutney, fresh pineapple juice and potato curry.
The day consisted of cruising to a local fish market to pick up dinner and slowly navigating along the Kerala backwater channels. We passed busy lives along the river, some bathing and doing laundry, others catching fish while their children played in the water.
The final leg of our south India trip was to Kochi, also known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea. Kochi was a centre of the Indian spice trade for many years and now is known for its exciting island regions that make up the city geography.
From earlier experience, we cut short our packed itinerary and asked our guide to visit two places: the Dhobi Khana and the Chinese fishing nets.
The Dhobi Khana is one of the few places in Kerala where traditional method of laundry still exists in India. A skill passed from parents to children with some having worked there their entire lives in this trade. In fact, we saw mini apartments allocated to each family by the government that have been passed down from one generation to another. We visited the largest Dhobi Khana collective and were impressed how their trade was still applied today. Dirty clothes are dropped off to be washed by hand using a traditional approach of slamming garments against large stones. Rice water is used to starch shirts (a lot more effective than chemicals we use back home!). Clothes are rinsed, then hung on a long clothesline–with no use of clips, rather tucked between coiled ropes– to dry. After being set out in the sun, clothes are then pressed with a solid non-electric iron (Elliot attempted to lift one, but just barely with two hands). The iron is heated by coconut husk charcoal– lasting 5 hours surprisingly. What’s amazing is no labels are affixed to the clothing–each garment is recorded and at end of day, the tally comes up accurately across thousands of garments washed and dried together.
Next we visited a fishing area where traditional Chinese fishing nets are used to catch fish. The Portuguese brought this technique to Kochi in the 18th century and the same system is still used today by way of a cantilever system and counterweight stones.
That evening we attended a Kathakali performance–the traditional dance of Kerala. The term Kathakali is derived from Katha which means “story or conversation”, and Kali which means “performance and art”. The actors, traditionally male, wearing elaborate make-up, costumes and face masks, perform a story using exclusively facial expressions and hand/body gestures. The kids were enthralled by the motions they saw and tried practicing each movement on our way back to the hotel. By the time we got home the kids had exhausted themselves and were ready for sleep.
We had a short stay in Kochi, but as a big city, we really loved the feel of it. It’s a place where we definitely could have explored longer, in particular the various islands surrounding the city.
The following day, we said goodbye to our driver, Raj, who kept us company for 10 days along our south India travels, and walked through the airport to begin our north India adventures in Rajasthan.
RAJASTHAN (cities: Udaipur, Jaipur, Agra)
Our gateway into Rajasthan was through Udaipur, via Mumbai. Upon exiting the airport, we met our new driver and the local tour representative.
We arrived to our hotel at 6:30pm and kids were promised a swim (the pool closed at 7pm). Never did we see how quickly they could change and jump into the pool to enjoy the remaining daylight in the refreshing water. The rooftop pool was beside the hotel’s rooftop dining area. Elliot and Chloë were doing cannonballs and energetic laps beside a group of english ladies enjoying their evening dinner. After their swim, we enjoyed a nice dinner overlooking a city lit up for the night. Already we fell in love with Udaipur.
That evening we spoke with our tour company to reduce the amount of driving to just one long day instead of two. We asked them to drop Jodpur from our itinerary and add another night in Udaipur. The hotel was perfect, food amazing and pool fantastic.
The next morning we woke up for our 7am pre-breakfast swim. It was already getting hot outside but the pool was still cool. After breakfast, we met our guide, and requested we visit only the temple and City Palace so we could spend the afternoon exploring Udaipur on our own. We decided to walk the city rather than drive. After driving for such long distances in the south we, even the kids, felt excited to walk again!
The next morning, we continued our routine: swim then breakfast. We added errands to the day: Fix Chloe’s bracelets, buy Ganesh statues and miniature paintings (Udaipur is the birthplace of miniature paintings).
It happened to be money day, the third day leading up to Diwali. Diwali is India’s biggest and most important holiday, celebrating the victory of spiritual light over darkness. All stores were keen to make a morning sale on this day. We bought three miniature paintings: elephant (signifying luck); horse (signifying strength) and camel (signifying love) to add to our travel collection.
That evening our hotel held a Diwali fireworks display for their guest. The kids thoroughly enjoyed lighting sparkler after sparkler and watching fireworks launch from surrounding hotels and buildings into the night.
Udaipur was perfect. Small enough to explore on foot, right by water, filled with galleries of miniature paintings (top on our India shopping list) and the most perfect hotel for a break from our constant driving. The 3.5 days we spent in Udaipur were great and very happy with our decision to stay longer and skip Jodpur.
After beautiful Udaipur, we drove (5 hours) to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, also known as the pink city. That evening we planned to walk along the street to find a dinner spot, but when we saw random Diwali fireworks being set off along the “sidewalk”, we turned around and had dinner at our hotel restaurant (“Italian” pizza) instead.
The next morning we drove straight to the Amber Fort. The fort stands on the rocky hill of Cheel ka Teela (Hill of Eagles) that overlooks Jaipur. Made entirely of red sandstone and white marble, the palace is nearly seven centuries old. Though we arrived quite early, it was already very busy and our first encounter with very persistent hawkers. Even the kids turned away hawkers. To get to the Amber Fort you could either walk up a steep incline or hop on an elephant to the top. The kids decided on elephants up to the Fort: boys on one elephant, girls on another.
In the evening, we had a 7pm pick up to celebrate Diwali at a nearby hotel. The driver got lost but this allowed us to see different parts of Jaipur. The city was lit up either by festive lights or fireworks continuously set off alongside live music. An entire city was celebrating Diwali! We eventually arrived to the Diwali dinner and got promptly changed: boys into their turbans and girls into their saris. Chloë’s was adult size but we improvised and she looked beautiful.
The evening had traditional music and dancing (Chloë joined right in). The kids finished dinner early which allowed us to sneak peak to a private fireworks show before the rest of the crowd joined us.
As we settled in for the night, fireworks were still going off well and continued into the early morning. It was such an amazing site, seeing the entire city lit up for the festival of lights.
We had our first small emergency of our trip. Chloë lost her journal and workbook the previous day and that night we were already making a plan B if we couldn’t locate them. Luckily, the next morning our tour operator called to say they found her school work bag. Emergency averted and journal found! After a quick detour to retrieve her bag, we were off to Agra.
Along the way we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri. We all fell asleep on the drive, as it was the first flat straight road (didn’t exist on our trip in the south!). We woke up groggy and reluctant to go sightseeing, but glad we did. Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal empire for 10 years during the reign of Emperor Akbar, in the 16th century. Akbar visited the village of Sikri to consult a Sufi who predicted the birth of a his child. When the prophecy came true, Akbar built his new capital here, including one of the largest mosques in India and three palaces for each of his favourite wives, one a Hindu, one a Muslim and one a Christian. He lived in harmony with his wives.
The next morning was hard to believe, it was our last day in India. For the finale we were to see the majestic Taj Mahal at sunrise.
After a 6am pick up from the hotel, we drove 3km to the Taj Mahal and took a rickshaw the rest of the way to the entrance (to protect the Taj Mahal from further pollution, motor vehicles are not allowed near the complex).
The Taj Mahal was breathtaking with a love story to melt your heart. It was built in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When Mumtaz Mahal was giving birth to their 14th child, she died due to complications. While Mumtaz was on her deathbed, Shah Jahan promised her that he would build the richest mausoleum over her grave.
It took 22 years and 22,000 workers to construct the monument. When Shah Jahan died in 1666, his body was placed in a tomb next to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. The magnificent monument is amongst the Seven Wonders of the World.
We knew 17-days in India wasn’t long enough to explore such a huge country, however, it gave us a glimpse of what it has to offer.
India is a country of contrasts, continuous haze, fast moving crowds, constant honking yet through all this you see vibrant colours, smiling faces and magical landscapes–from frozen Himalayas to gorgeous Kerala backwaters. Each part of India seemed as separate countries with different cultures, and sometime languages, all living together in orderly confusion.
Though traffic in India is absolutely chaotic–there’s one rule above all: everyone honks–what’s strange is that we didn’t witness any roadrage as we traveled from city to city, south to north throughout the country. Even in larger cities such as Bangalore or Delhi, the drivers were all aggressive but acquiesced –sans traffic rules– by way of warning honks as they passed each other. Even seeing a motorbike coming towards you on a one-way street seems normal now. For some reason, it all works for everyone.
During our trip we saw some crushing poverty as we drove through the larger cities. Even looking out of our vehicle sometime seemed like we were gazing through a tv screen. Our kids didn’t ask questions immediately, but from looks on their faces, as we drove through it all, we think they’re starting to see the world from a different perspective than they did at the start of our trip.
We always felt safe while in India. People were very friendly and seemed to go out of their way to make us feel welcome in their country.
Our travels through India allowed us to reflect how much a male dominated society we were in compared to Canada. Elliot got all the attention. On bus trips he got the first seat and our driver would go out of his way to get Elliot what he wanted. Not that it mattered to Chloë. She had to fight harder to get what she wanted and she did each time. Upon reflection, the women always seemed very well dressed and put together. From working in the fields, picking tea leaves, riding on a back of a scooter, to walking down a busy street, they always looked elegant in their saris. Maybe that’s it–the women don’t need to stand up and be loud. They’re the silent strong ones that make things happen in their own ways through grace and strength in their male dominated society.
The one part we found difficult was driving from city to city and having a guide with us at all times. Looking back, some of the more enjoyable times were when we got lost, without a guide or driver to assist, and found our way back in an unfamiliar city. This made us realized (something we already knew, but a good reminder) that we’d much rather stay longer in places and see less, rather than keep moving and see more. In retrospect, we would scaled down our itinerary (remove Bangalore, Mysore, Jaipur) and spend longer in smaller cities to give us time to explore on our own. This realisation is now shaping our Vietnam trip and extending our Australia trip by removing New Zealand entirely.
India is a country where we want to return someday to revisit places we enjoyed and, more importantly, continue discovering new places.
We’re off to Nepal next in our adventures.
Read about Chloë”s and Elliot’s experience in India: