Continuing with my past travelogues, this is the first of two posts on my road trips to the Union Territory of Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu (Wikipedia link, do readif not familiar with Pondicherry). As I mentioned earlier, I may not be able recount every name or for that matter, everything since, well…. it’s been a while!
Date: 26-27th August, 2005
Two cars. Nine of us. Independence Day weekend.
We set off early morning from Bangalore city and headed down Hosur Road, past Electronic City, for the Tamil Nadu border. The highways (once you enter Tamil Nadu) are remarkably better than Karnataka’s roads but this being India, they don’t stay good for long. You have to get off the main highway off to a smaller road that leads to Puducherry.
The route we took passes through Krishnagiri – Thirvanamalai – Gingee and was expected to take us 6 hours.
We reached Thirvanamalai at around 7:30am and stopped here for breakfast. It was at a local restaurant/mess so I don’t remember the name — but you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad idli–dosa joint in Tamil Nadu.
By noon, we were in Pondicherry. The (Government run) hotel we stayed at was just after the Pondicherry entrance checkpoint, to the right. It wasn’t much of a place (especially the restaurant) but I do remember the rooms our friend booked were the “suites”. They were big, had A/Cs and looked like a suite… by 1980s India standards. But hey, it was cheap. Around Rs. 600 or so. (Mind you, this was off-season 2005).
We freshened up, had lunch and headed straight to Beach Road.
Most, if not all, of what you’ll want to see in Pondicherry is in and around Beach Road and the “rues” (‘rue’ = ‘street’ in French) behind it. The old French colonial buildings, the Aurobindo Ashram and the big churches are all within walkable reach from here.
After some shopping and dinner, we called it an early night. The plan was to wake up early (funny how it always is on my trips) and head to Beach Road to watch the sunrise.
Which we did.
After breakfast, it was church-hopping. First up, the Eglise de Notre Dame de la Conception Immaculee (The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) on Cathedral Street.
Next, Sacred Heart Church on the south boulevard.
Okay I kid. Maybe the kids were from out of town. 🙂
The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is famous for its glass paintings depicting events from the life of Jesus Christ.
Then, we walked to the Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges (The Church of Our Lady of Angels).
After grabbing some ice-cream, we took advantage of the lower cost of fuel in Pondicherry and headed back to our rooms to check out. We left Puducherry by noon and decided to head back Bangalore.
Word of advice: Be careful about buying liquor in Pondicherry (as with fuel, liquor is cheaper too) and taking it out of town, there are multiple police inspection points you will have to stop at.
We took the same route back and only stopped on the way to have lunch. Lord knows where it was that we stopped but it was terrible. Best to have lunch at Pondicherry itself and then leave as the options are very slim on the journey back.
I really found Gingee Fort interesting and told myself I wanted to check it out the next time I was around these parts.
Not that it hindered our journey. It was still a lovely drive and that is one thing about heading to Pondicherry from Bangalore (or even Chennai) — it’s one of the best daytime drives you’ll have in South India.
Camera used: Canon Powershot A95; post processing done in Photoshop CS3, especially the blues which were cyan heavy
Having decided I wasn’t going to end my Krabi trip in further disappointment, I got down from my tour boat at Railay instead of Ao Nang, which is where my hotel was. I wanted to see as much as possible of what I had intended to in Krabi.
I was on the Railay West side and I made my way through a narrow ‘street’ in between resorts on either side. It was one short walk to get to Railay East.
Railay is essentially for backpackers. And if you are into reggae. Seriously.
It was funny to see Thai Rastafarians but the place had loads of them. Bob Marley, Jamaica and ‘weed’ art pretty much painted Railay East’s bar scene. Accommodation is mostly budget and the parties go on until late.
Railay East was, well, different from all other coastlines I saw in South Thailand. It’s still a cool place to be if you just want to party and smoke up — because just about everyone who chose to stay in Railay looked like they didn’t want to be among the ‘other’ tourists.
As it neared 5pm, I walked back through the hotels and resorts back to Railay West.
There is a boat taxi counter on the beach itself. A ticket back to Ao Nang costs 80 baht (Rs. 110). That’s fairly steep considering the journey takes less than 5 minutes. On top of that, you have to wait for the boat to get enough passengers before it can leave.
But wow — the ride as short as it is — is beautiful!
Getting to see the enormous rocks from up close was an awesome experience.
Having taken a longtail boat, I must say, the ride is a lot smoother than I thought.
I went back to Ao Nang Grand Inn, freshened up and collected my bags. Since I had to catch a flight from Phuket back to Bangkok the next morning, I was contemplating spending the night at Krabi town.
But since I was still on the “don’t-want-it-to-end” mood, I instead sought a cheap room in Ao Nang itself and decided to leave early next morning. I found a decent room just a few shops down from Ao Grand Inn for 300 baht (Rs. 415) . I checked in, showered and went out in search of a bigger bag as I was tired of carrying around 4 small bags (including the tripod stand).
I found a 80 litre capacity bag for 1500 baht (Rs. 2,000), which I thought was a good deal as I had bargained it down from around 2000 baht most shops were selling it for. Of course, once I got back to Bangkok a day later, it wasn’t quite a bargain I thought it was.
Dinner was at Bernie’s Place, run by a Dane, who was offering an all-you-can-eat buffet for 250 baht (Rs. 340) that was attracting quite a crowd. And boy, was it a good deal or what! First you have option of whatever you want barbequed — chicken, fish or corn. Then there were breads, fries besides a decent selection of starters and main course items. Then ice cream for dessert. Highly recommended if you are hungry!
By the time I was stuffed and cleared the bill, it began to rain lightly in Ao Nang. As the streets cleared, and knowing there was little to do in such a scenario, I headed back to my room (after picking up an ice cream from a 7-11) and called it a night.
I had planned on seeing quite a lot in four days… and I saw most of it in one. Not bad, I guess.
Woke up 6am, checked out and kept my bags at the reception. I got picked up at around 7am and the tour vehicle went around collecting the other tourists from different hotels who were all part of some day tour or the other.
The tour of Koh Phi Phi I had chosen was on a speedboat, thinking it would have been safer as supposed to taking a traditional longtail boat (the wooden ones commonly used as taxis and by fishermen).
Our tour group consisted of nearly 16 people and I walked rather hurriedly towards the boat in the hope of getting a spot right in front. Unfortunately, in that rush, I ended up dipping my camera bag in the water. (“Oh crap” moment #7).
Fortunately, the camera and lenses were safe. Only thing that got drenched was the manual and the battery charger (wasn’t too happy about that) which were placed in the front pouch. But because I had to stop a few seconds and assess the damage, a few managed to pass me by to get a spot right at front. Sucked.
Anyway, we set off after everyone put on their life-jackets. The tour boat had to pick up two more tourists from Railay which is a 5 minute boat ride from Ao Nang beach.
Railay was another place in Krabi I planned on spending time at. It’s become a destination for rock-climbing enthusiasts…
Since we docked at the beach and the boat was stable for a few minutes, it gave me an opportunity to take out the Sigma 70-200 lens. Unfortunately, humidity had caused vapour on the filter and I made the mistake of trying to clean it with a wet towel — which only made it worse!
We left Railay and headed off for our tour of the Phi Phi islands. On the way, we passed by Koh Kai (“koh” = “island”), famously called Chicken island.
A bumpy 30-minute ride later, we stopped at a quiet and less-crowded spot for snorkeling.
I had never tried snorkeling, so I put on the gear and got into the water (which was quite cold). I had my life jacket on so I just lay flat and put my head down under the water. My-GOD-the-water was so clear! It was an awesome feeling and wished I could have captured it on film — but I wasn’t going to risk my Canon 7D even though it was weather-sealed to a certain extent.
“Swimming with the fishes” was the only way to describe the feeling. There were so many in the water and the sun light making its way through the water and glistening off the fish scales made for a very pretty sight. I can’t wait to try out scuba diving!
After 30 mins or so, the tour boat moved on to our next stop — the famous Maya Bay. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I wanted to come to Krabi after watching The Beach. Even though the movie was mediocre (but the soundtrack awesome), I loved the fact there were beautiful paradise islands not too far away from India. In the film, the inhabitants of Ko Phi Phi Lee were only a few. The beaches were pristine, the waters clear and the sands were devoid of any litter. I was looking forward to visiting such places in this trip.
But…. things have changed since the release of The Beach apparently.
Turns out I’m not the only one who watched The Beach and was inspired by it to visit Thailand. 🙂
The place was crowded! Most of the visitors are from Phuket and there were more than 20 boats at any given time docked on the shores. Our stop was for around 30 minutes, so I could wade through the hundreds of people and check out the place as much as possible.
Many Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Kong/Japanese tourists were excitedly posing under these phallic stalactites.
Our tour guide even asked if she/he could take a photo with me citing we were “matching-matching”.
Besides tourists, there really isn’t much on Maya Bay. Its a protected reserve and there is just one shack serving drinks and toilet way in the back.
A brief video (you may choose 720p or 1080p for Hi-Definition quality):
Despite the crowds, you could still make out how beautiful Maya Bay is. It would have been nice if I could come by private boat early in the morning or at sunset and spend some quite time alone here.
After half-an-hour, we moved just a bit away from all the boats for some more snorkeling.
We left Maya Bay and moved on to our next stop — another location which was featured in The Beach. Seriously, half the tour was based on “how this is where Leonardo DiCaprio did this”, “here is where Leo jumped into the water” etc. What Dil Chahta Hai did for Goa, The Beach did for Ko Phi Phi.
A brief video of the lagoon:
After taking a round inside the lagoon, we then made our way to Tham Pya Nak, a.k.a Viking Cave.
No, the vikings never made it to Thailand, but you can read about why it got that nickname here. Found inside are swift’s nests which people collect to be used in Bird’s Nest Soup, a Chinese delicacy.
We couldn’t go inside as it is restricted to tourists mostly because of the disturbances caused by chatter and flash lights that annoy workers and the bats that reside in the cave.
So we moved on to our final stop before lunch — Monkey Island.
At around 12:30, we headed for Phi Phi don, which is the only commercial region of the Phi Phi islands. All the hotels, stores, internet cafes and markets are located on this part of the island.
The buffet lunch was at some restaurant and it was… meh. Didn’t have much ‘cos it wasn’t really palatable. The lunch is included in the tour fare and there were dishes in both veg and non-veg (though, as with all of Thailand, more options in the latter).
We had around half-an-hour to kill after lunch to walk around Phi Phi Don, which is what I did.
By 2pm, we left Phi Phi Don and made our way through slightly rough seas (best not to eat much when taking a speedboat) and it for a bit, it looked like it was going to rain.
Our final destination on the tour was an hour-long stop at Bamboo Island.
This is what I wanted to see in Thailand. This is the kind of place I wanted to spend an entire day at. Sit on the beach under a shade and just stare into the sea.
But all I could think about was how sad I was in knowing I had only hour here. I didn’t even feel like walking a bit to explore the island and find the bamboo trees inside, which is where the island get its name. I wanted to soak in as much of the shore as I could. There weren’t many people on our beach too — the way I liked it.
Even the rocks looked unique.
As it neared time for us to leave, I recorded some videos (which I didn’t even feel like setting up the tripod for) and then headed back to the boat.
With that, the one day tour of the Phi Phi islands came to an end. It really is a beautiful place and it was exactly how I pictured it to be. (Minus the crowds). But the next time, and there will be a next time, I’m just going to come here on a longtail boat. It may be slower, but it will be a lot less bumpy than the speedboat.
On the way back, I sat there all glum and told myself I didn’t want this to end. And so, on the way back to Ao Nang, I decided not to end it.
When it came time to drop the tourists from Railay… I got down along with them.