India. A land of rich history and culture but also home to terrible poverty and squalor. I had hesitated for years to visit the land of my ancestors, repulsed by shocking headlines of sexual assault, poor infrastructure and crime.
But in early 2019, as I pondered where next to go on holiday, I remembered about my primary school friend Aalok, who had returned to India in 2004. We had lost touch for a few years until reconnecting on Facebook in 2008. He had invited me to his wedding in 2017 but I had to miss it due to exams in Australia. Perhaps now was the time to finally meet him?
I dropped Aalok a message on Instagram and found him quite enthusiastic about a meet-up. Although I had only intended to visit Bangalore (where he lived) and Mysore (a royal capital 130km away), Aalok suggested that I visit the ruins of Hampi, once the seat of the Vijayanagara Empire and offered to accompany me there. I gladly accepted.
My Silkair flight landed at Bangalore’s Kempegowda International Airport at 11am local time. Immigration formalities were quickly completed and I found myself at the arrival area. I went straight to the SIM card shop and got myself one. For 900 rupees, you get unlimited local calls and 1.4GB of data per day. All you need is your passport, a local address and a passport photo.
Uber is highly recommended for travelling in Bangalore and I quickly got a car to the city which was 40km away. As I was taking the overnight train to Hampi that night, I decided to drop off at UB City, a luxury mall that had nice restaurants and cafes. A place called Rasovara looked promising so I chose to have a late lunch there. Imagine my shock when the waiter started bringing the first course even before I had browsed the menu! Turns out the restaurant had a single fixed course for lunch. It consisted of numerous dishes in small plates and bowls. The desserts were particularly good.
After a relaxing lunch, I took another Uber to the main railway station to stow my luggage in the cloak room before exploring the city. The station, popularly known as “KSR” was swamped with people sleeping on the floors and spilling out of offices. The luggage counter was easy to find and it cost just 30 rupees to store my luggage for up to 24 hours.
With that done, I made my way to Lalbagh Gardens, a colonial-era patch of greenery smack in the middle of the city. It was relatively clean by local standards and the lakes were particularly pleasant to hang around.
As dusk approached, I decided to take a slow walk to the Toscano restaurant where I was supposed to meet Aalok for dinner. Along the way, I bumped into many cows milling by the roadside. Crossing the chaotic roads were a challenge but I managed by shadowing locals.
Dinnertime came and Aalok soon arrived. It was a real treat to finally meet him in person after 15 years. We caught up on years of news over some good pasta. Glad to know that he was doing well both professionally and personally.
After dinner, Aalok suggested we take the Bangalore Metro (also called Namma Metro) to the KSR railway station. The system is modern and reminded me of KL’s LRT network. Upon reaching KSR, I retrieved my luggage from the cloak room and we waited at the platform for the Hampi Express to arrive.
By a stroke of luck we managed to get the first class two-bed compartment all to ourselves. While they cost much more than the regular non-air conditioned sleeper coaches used by most Indians, they were still cheap by international standards. We quickly set up our beds and fell asleep. The gentle rocking of the train was quite helpful.
As the sun rose the next day, I was up early and admired the scenery while Aalok snoozed abit longer. The train was about 2 hours behind schedule by this point, a relatively common situation. The Hampi Express finally pulled into Hospet station just after 9am. Hospet is a large town that has the closest railway station to Hampi. We quickly walked to our hotel which was nearby, declining the offers of numerous touts to take us there.
After a quick shower and storing our luggage, we headed out to this vegetarian restaurant recommended by one of the hotel staff. Named, Naivedyam (or offering to God), the restaurant offered an enormous selection of local favourites. I decided to have the masala dosa and it was excellent.
After that hearty meal, Aalok suggested that we take the local bus to Hampi since the bus station was nearby. We quickly found the right bus, a large red vehicle filling fast with passengers. The conductor came up and pressed some buttons on his small handheld device, which printed out a combined ticket. Our fares were just 15 rupees each, a huge saving compared to price-gouging auto drivers.
The bus ride was fast albeit bumpy, but we soon found ourselves at the entrance to Hampi. We began with the enormous Virupaksha Temple, which was still in active use, before hiring an auto to zip us around to the ruins scattered across the rocky landscape. As the weather was extremely scorching, I wore my sunglasses and cap, and had my sunscreen lotion on. At Aalok’s suggestion, we also stopped by vendors selling fresh young coconuts to cool ourselves down. I finished off six of these water-filled fruits.
As night approached, we made our way along the river back to the bazaar near Virupaksha Temple. Dinner was at Mango Tree, a well-reviewed vegetarian place with decor that just screamed “oriental hippie”. I had a really good naan with spicy egg curry.
After dinner, we found out that the last bus was late, and after half an hour of waiting, Aalok and another man (who was heading to Hospet railway station) decided to take up an auto driver’s offer to take us back to the town. Unfortunately, the auto sputtered to a halt along the way and refused to start again.
While we fretted over how to continue our journey, the last bus we had originally waited for came around behind us. The auto driver flagged down the bus and we promptly hopped onto it, as I said a silent prayer of thanks for the stroke of luck. The bus dropped us off at the railway station and it was a quick walk back to the hotel to wash up before bed.
It was Ugadi today, a New Year festival celebrated primarily in the states of Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Therefore, we decided to chill the morning away at the hotel (and also recover from the gruelling heat from the previous day). The hotel was surprisingly reluctant to give us a free late check out despite there being hardly any crowds and Aalok had to kick up a fuss before they relented a little. We got to check out at 1pm instead of 11am.
Having enjoyed the food very much, we decided to lunch at Naivedyam again. Then it was on to the bus station to hop on a bus to the Tungabhadra Dam, a local landmark. The dam itself was an immense structure holding back a giant reservoir while next to it were shady gardens filled with lots of birds.
We returned to Hospet on a shared auto, a larger than normal one which functioned like a Grabshare service. Dinner was some very good but filling pasta at a restaurant opposite Naivedyam. Then it was a quick walk back to the hotel to retrieve our luggage and head to the station for the Hampi Express to Mysore.
Aalok decided to take the sleeper coach for this ride and so I ended up alone in a 4-bed first class compartment. An engineer from West Bengal joined me a few stops later and we had a chat about travelling in India. It was soon time for bed and I was rocked to sleep by the train once more.
I woke up early as my companion bid me farewell before alighting at Bangalore station. Once again, I had the whole compartment to myself and I just watched the trackside scenery as the train chugged its way to Mysore.
Pulling into Mysore station, I quickly got off and rejoined Aalok on the platform. We took an auto to his parents’ place on the outskirts of the city. His parents were waiting outside the house as we arrived and warmly greeted us. It was good to see them once again after all these years.
Aalok’s mum had prepared breakfast for us, and I had three excellent masala dosas (had to decline more as I was absolutely full). Those were washed down with watermelon shakes and some sweet desserts.
We then freshened up before Aalok brought out his dad’s car to take us both to the nearby town of Srirangapatna, famous for its ruins related to the Tippu Sultan.
After a long day, Aalok dropped me off at my hotel, the Radisson Blu Plaza. From now on, I would be exploring on my own. I was very impressed with the hotel’s luxurious offerings. Dinner was a mutton dum briyani from the lobby restaurant and it was excellent. I soon fell asleep on the soft and comfy bed.
I began the day with the sumptuous buffet breakfast at the hotel. I tried one of their masala omelettes that were very spicy (!!). Then it was on to the famous Mysore Palace, home to the Wodeyar royal family that ruled the kingdom before India’s independence in 1947. The palace is very well-maintained and shoes are not allowed in order to protect the floors.
Lunch was in this charming restaurant, housed in a colonial bungalow, which offered wood-fired pizzas. After that, it was back to the hotel for a rest. I thought of taking a walking tour of the city in the evening and so I called up an agency, Gully Tours, to enquire. Despite my last minute request, they managed to arrange for a guide, Nikhil, to conduct the tour for me. We visited several historical landmarks before heading to the market district.
Back at the hotel, I decided to chill at the bar with some drinks before retiring for the night. The masala lamb kebabs deserve special mention.
A lightning storm that night knocked out power to most of the district, though the hotel’s backup generator kicked in after twenty seconds. Other city folk had to wait nearly an hour for power to be restored.
While browsing the morning newspaper delivered to my room, I realised that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was arriving in Mysore that day for an election rally. Several roads in the city were to be closed and security tightened. I decided to check out the hotel spa instead. So after breakfast (more masala omelettes), I walked over to the spa to browse their packages. Before I realised, I had signed up for three express therapies: head massage, foot massage and cleansing facial.
They gave me a nice rose flavoured welcome drink before my therapist led me to the room. The massages and facial were so relaxing I felt like butter. I emerged two hours later with a spring in my step! The cost was also quite reasonable at $120.
Hungry at this point, I decided on a whim to go try the Mcdonald’s in the mall beside the hotel. To my surprise, they also offer the Mcspicy which tastes the same as the Singapore version, though the meat was less juicy.
As the weather was quite cool, I thought it was the right time to visit the Chamundeshwari Temple atop Chamundi Hills. The resident goddess is said to have slain the demon Mahishashura upon the hill after 9 days of battle, now celebrated as Navarathiri and Vijayadashami. I booked an Uber Hire Go which allowed me to keep the driver and car for as long as I needed and pay a distance and time-based fare at the end.
Dinner was at the lovely Tiger Trail restaurant at the Royal Orchid Metropole hotel. Specialising in tandoori cusine, the place offered a huge variety of vegetarian, meat and seafood dishes. I chose to have some tandoori fish and a mutton dum briyani. The latter was possibly the best I’ve ever eaten and the meat was extremely flavourful and tender.
I began my final morning in Mysore with another helping from the breakfast buffet. Then it was time to check out and head to the railway station for the Tippu Express back to Bangalore.
The train ride was smooth but it got held up 7km from Bangalore due to congestion. As the minutes ticked by, some frustrated passengers got off and proceeded to walk to the station on foot. Thankfully, the strong air-conditioning kept us comfortable while we waited. The train finally pulled into KSR station 40 minutes late.
My Uber was stuck in the notorious Bangalore gridlock, but I eventually reached my hotel, the Radisson Blu Atria, and checked in speedily. I was due to meet Aalok and his wife Maya for dinner that evening, and so I decided to spend my remaining time getting some souvenirs.
The Cauvery Emporium is a government-operated shop which offers an enormous variety of handicrafts, especially those made from extremely fragrant sandalwood. Prices are high, but the quality is assured and salesmen don’t tout or use high-pressure tactics. I purchased two small figurines for $130.
Dropping them off at the hotel, I went to UB City once again to meet Aalok and his wife at the Fava Mediterranean restaurant. Maya is such a lovely lady and Aalok is very blessed to be married to her. I passed them my overdue wedding gift, a painting done by my mum. We had a lively chat over dinner and it was such a great way to conclude my trip.
My final day in India began with a quick breakfast and check-out. Aalok had advised me to head to the airport early due to traffic congestion and so I hopped on an Uber at 9am for my 11.55am flight. The roads were jammed with rush hour traffic, but I reached the airport by 10am. Check-in and immigration formalities were quick and I was soon at the gate waiting for my flight.
The familiar Silkair bird soon pulled up at the gate and we were on our way in good time. The flight was very smooth (no crying babies!) and we finally touched down at Changi Airport at 7pm. My maiden India trip was over.
I must confess that I went to India with many preconceived stereotypes and fears based on news headlines and what I saw on Indian TV shows and movies. While India indeed has many deep social ills and infrastructure is appallingly poor for a self-proclaimed “rising Asian power”, I also saw the energy of its youthful population that is hungry for success. Beyond the Taj Mahal, India has countless other cultural and historical sites worth a look. I am very grateful that I got a chance to reunite with my friend and get a small taste of the vast heritage that India offers.