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Make sure your water bottle is properly sealed when you buy it anywhere in India - seal replacing is a real growth industry in some areas!
You can have clothes altered at very reasonable prices anywhere in the country: two pairs of tourses shortened and hemmed for a total of Rs30, same day service!
Marvin Rosen, USA (Sep '00)We had no desire to visit Kovalam so I can't compare it to Varkala. However we found that people who liked Varkala, didn't like Kovalam and visa versa. Apart from the unfinished 4-storey concrete thing at one end of the beach, Varkala is a beautiful place to stay. The buildings have been kept low and there's a great relaxed atmosphere, especially along the clifftop. Any of the resturants are a great place to sit and watch dolphins out at sea!
Wall, England ]
Kovalam: Beware the very strong undertow in the sea on both beaches, which also drop very steeply. Very dangerous, especially for children.
Alison & John Whalley, UK (Sep 00)
The warnings about ocean swimming in Kerala are well founded. I just swam at Kovalam and Varkala and was frightened a couple of times by the strong rips - even though I am an experienced ocean swimmer. Take care.
Ben Ellison, USA ]
My brother went swimming at a small beach town in Kerala called Varkala. My brother, who swam daily for hours at a time, drowned just offshore as a result of the strong tides and currents. There are no signs or lifeguards. Please be aware that the currents and tides are especially dangerous in Kerala and be careful.
We enjoyed Kerala but felt it would be beneficial to other travellers to warn about the "turtle trick". The scenario is this - the local fishermen catch a turtle whilst out on their morning catch and bring it to shore when they know the tourists arrive at the beach. They then haggle amongst themselves as to who is going to keep it and sell it on. Meanwhile catching the tourist's attention; the obviously horrified tourist tries to intervene and return it back to the sea. The price is Rs 2000.
[ Jo-Anne Fryer & Martyn Mawson,
There is a wealth of small towns in south India that are quite exquisite and rarely visited by foreigners. Most of them are fairly accessible by public transport - a lot easier if you have a car - and most have one or more tourist homes/small hotels of varying quality. I have stayed in several and it is obvious from the reactions as I walk down the street that Westerners are a very rare commodity. I have been met with nothing but courtesy and warm smiles. For example, Teni has a lovely hotel; Avanashi has a fantastic restaurant; Coonoor, by contrast, is full of drunks on a Friday night which my friends and I found quite intimidating; Trivandrum has a few decent restaurants and the list goes on.
[ Rod Daldry
A very useful bus for many travellers must be the overnight express from Pondicherry to Trivandrum, which can be reserved at the main bus stand and leaves at 4.30 pm. It gets to Trivandrum at a convenient time in the morning (about 8.30 am). Travellers with a tight itinerary could 'do' Pondy in half a day en route from Mamallapuram to Kovalam in Kerala.
Francis Law ]
Cycling around India you do attract a crowd, especially in less visited areas and even more so if you are (or are with) a woman. We didn't experience problems of mobs, or unruly children, in fact people were normally very timid. Cycling into or though the large cities can be unpleasant and a bit daunting. For Calcutta we made a big bypass loop then left our bikes secured in a hotel room for a couple of days and caught the train into the city. This would be a good idea for any of the major cities.
We found distances were largely dictated by available accommodation. There was normally no accommodation in villages or even small towns so we would aim for an appropriate sized town. We averaged 80 km a day, but this varied from 60 to 130 km. We would make a start as soon as it was light, then have a few stops for breakfasts and chai and try to find a hotel by about noon. We could then shower and relax, have lunch and then have the rest of the day to explore, sightsee etc. It was like having two days in one.
Generally, I would not recommend cycling past noon as the sun is too strong. Also, unlike Europe, where you can relax for a few hours over lunch and then cycle in the cooler afternoon, this is not practical in India - where can a foreigner with a bike relax? Remember too that it gets dark fairly early and hotels fill up. The last thing you want is to be cycling to the next town in the dark.
I would recommend that if you do bring a bike (definitely worthwhile) it should be a 26 inch wheel one, possibly with good quality front suspension. This size is now widely available in India, spares (wheels, tyres, tubes, forks) are all available and presumably you can also get locally make gears (derailleur, freewheels etc). You should still take you own basic spares because the quality is low, but it's nice to know that local parts would be available in an emergency.
In contrast, my friend took her aluminium Marin Hybrid, which has 700 wheels. Due to a problem with the rims, her 3 spare inner tubes were damaged and the trip was in jeopardy. The options were to get to Calcutta for spares or air freight new tubes.
We searched and searched for 700 tubes with presta valves all the way from Siliguri to Calcutta, to no avail. Originally intending to bypass Calcutta, we had to go there to look for tubes. We found the famed Bentinck Street and the tens of bike shops there. None of them had what we wanted and in fact none had anything apart from Indian bikes and spares - except for Nundy and Company who had one narrow chain. I am afraid that there are no foreign parts to be found in Calcutta.
Hill, UK ]
Women travellers - an empty compartment in a train can seem very attractive but delinquent young males can congregate and be a nuisance. In preference, even if accompanied by a male, go for an area with local female presence as this cools the "boys".
Davison, UK ]
When motorcycling in Kerala, watch out for the buses, they are the worst, most psycopathic drivers in India!! They seem to run to almost impossible timetables. Apart from them, Kerala is a great place to ride, especially the north of Cochin and the ghats. The ride from Mysore to Telicherry is spectacular if a little bumpy at times.
[ Steve Krzystyniak
The most basic tip for not getting sick in India - wash your hands before every meal. Every Indian Restaurant has a bathroom, or at least a little sink in the corner, and being conscientous about using it can substantially reduce the risk of illness.
Andrew Leigh, USA ]
We made a really obvious point of recording the taxi or riskshaw licence plate details and never had another problem after that.
Foley & Rebecca Swanson, New Zealand ]
The Snake boat race may be the most important event of the year, but as a western female tourist it's not the best time to be there. Indian men are drunk, aggressive and often offend women. We had more than one bad experience. Even with a man at your side, it's not safe at all.
[ Hilde Klerk,
When travelling 2nd class sleeper (the best compromise between economy and convenience) always remember to buy a ticket for the upper berth. It is safer for the luggage and you will not be disturbed by other passengers.
On tourist buses for long trips, try to get seat numbers three and four which are the first two seats near the door. There is much more space and it is easier to get a good sleep.
Take a hand towel with you while on the bus since air conditioning does not exist and temperatures and humidity can get unbelievably high.
[ Yariv Shlivinski,
If you get a chance take a trip on a rice barge in Kerala. We spent 24 hours of luxury cruising along the backwaters with our own chef. The cost is approximately Rs 10,000 for four people - quite pricey but a once in a life time experience.
[ Kary, Jane, Susie and Scarlett,
A common problem we encountered in India was that of travel agents issuing airline tickets without confirmation, though telling the punter that these were confirmed. On arrival at the airport you are waitlisted and may well not get a seat. There is no description of the codes on the ticket to ensure you have a valid ticket. It needs to say OK in the status and there should be a confirmation code on the ticket. Once you know all this, a quick call to the airline can check that your ticket is valid.
[ Daniel Jordan
Silent Valley - foreigners must get a return permission in advance, either in Trivandrum or in Palakkad. In Palakkad it is in Olavakkad (Palakkad Junction) : Dr. Mahar Singh, Conservation of Forest Wildlife, Forest Complex; tel: 0492-556393 (though I couldn't get through). From Palakkad there are buses to Manmakkad, and change bus to Mukkali. It seems to be possible to arrange a jeep to take you to the park from Mukkali.
It is easy to get to Jog from the coast as there are direct buses from Kumta and Honavar. It's a beautiful trip through forest. Jog falls can be very spectacular in the rainy season and some days the dam is opened and there is a lot of water.
[ Kris Borring Prassada Rao,
A major warning about shopping in India. Never take anything at the first price offered. ALWAYS halve the price first and bargain from there. I lived in India for a year as a 17 year old exchange student and this is how my host mother taught me to buy things. It works!! If they don't give in, walk away slowly and they'll eventually call you back to negotiate until you get the better deal.
Henderson, USA ]
A lungi and a large shawl (both easy to get and cheap in India) are very useful. They can be used as towels, the shawl can keep you warm on night travels and finally they can be used as bed sheets and blankets in not-too-clean beds or when you don't have a bed.
One of the things that really struck me in South India, is the impact of travellers on the children there. I know that a lot of travellers give kids pens and sweets and it is done with the best of intentions, but it is turning kids into beggars.
There are a lot of kids in India who beg to survive. However, there are now a lot more who beg because they think they'll get goodies from any traveller they see. If you want to give something to the kids, how about donating school supplies or money to the local school. That way they can ensure that the most needy kids get the supplies. And when the kids ask you for something, spend some time with them instead of giving them sweets. They are fun, clever kids with loads of energy and are a super source of information about their country, if you're willing to take the time. They also love to be photographed.
This goes for the street kids in the cities as well. Asking their name and interacting with them a bit will make a world of difference that handing them a rupee without looking down just doesn't match.
Meredith Preston, Thailand ]
By travelling in the monsoon, places were less crowded, hotels easy to book, prices are a bit lower, local tourist facilities more relaxed. Excellent time to travel ! All one needs is an umbrella.
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