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Philippines Consulate emblem Chennai

The crap I went through to get my Philippines tourist visa this time

I’ve been itching to write this post since I got my Philippines visa stamped back in early May. I was very upset and stressed over the entire ordeal. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

I first visited Philippines in 2011. It ended up becoming my greatest trip till date. The photos I took, the places I visited, and the experiences I had made for a series of blog posts that became very popular — especially among Filipinos! So popular that Philippines is now the third highest country driving traffic to my website. I’ve gotten hundreds of comments, e-mails and messages on Facebook from Filipinos thanking me and praising me for giving Philippines a visit.

Philippines traffic to
You will find this stat box on the right column under the ‘Live Traffic Feed’ widget

When I left Philippines in 2011, I knew I wanted to go back and thought about finally doing it earlier this year. The initial plan was to visit Philippines first and then go to South Korea from Manila. I even got a great deal on a Cathay Pacific flight going from Bangalore → Hong Kong → Manila and the return from Incheon → Hong Kong → Bangalore for around Rs. 32k. Unfortunately in April, some idiot in North Korea decided to issue a bunch of threats to their wealthier neighbour and bragged about dropping bombs there and starting a war. Of course, the situation was made worse by Western media, who made a bigger deal out of it than the South Korean media did.

Still, I kept thinking “what if…” and I was considering cancelling the South Korea portion of my journey. I ended up doing so when I began my visa processing work and found out that Philippines has since opened up a consulate in Chennai, and my passport would have to go there first and then go to New Delhi for my South Korean tourist visa. With under three weeks left before my departure date, I called up Goibibo and sadly cancelled the South Korea portion of my flight. I had to shuffle dates, make fresh bookings to Manila and all-in-all I lost around Rs. 5000.

But my misery wasn’t over. In 2011, I got my Philippines visa done through Thomas Cook, who after charging Rs. 1000 as their service fee, got my passport stamped and sent back from New Delhi in just a week’s time. I went to the same Thomas Cook branch in Koramangala, only to be told that all visa applications are now done at the MG Road office. But just to be sure, they called up the Thomas Cook office in Chennai. Then the guy tells me: “Thomas Cook can’t do Philippines visa”. I’m like, “what?!”. I went back home annoyed and decided to visit the MG Road branch of Thomas Cook the next day for better clarification.

When I went to the MG Road branch with all my documents (as specified on the Philippines Embassy website), the Thomas Cook staff told me I may have to provide an additional document. Annoyed that I had to come back again the next day, I asked her if she was sure Thomas Cook could handle the Philippines visa processing. She assured me “of course,” but when I told her what the guy at the Koramangala branch told me, she decided to call up the Chennai office to confirm. She herself was shocked to hear that the Chennai office said they no longer handle Philippines visa applications.

When I asked her what was the reason, she told me they wouldn’t say but it was a blanket “no, we don’t do that anymore” and that the applicant (me) will have to go in person to the Chennai consulate and apply. Which was ridiculous to me, because I didn’t have to deal with all this the last time! Instead, she suggested sending my passport to the Philippines Embassy in New Delhi. When I asked her how long that would take, she told me 7-10 working days. Which was too risky for me because I saw the number of passports the MG Road branch sends to New Delhi every day — it’s in the hundreds, and to various embassies! Add to that, now the service fee for sending it to New Delhi had gone up to Rs. 1700.

I told her I need to think about this because for that kind of money, I can go to Chennai myself and get it done in a day. When I got back home, I felt frustrated over the days lost and all the running back & forth. I called up the Chennai Philippines consulate to check if I needed to apply in person and I was rudely interrupted by a lady who worked there to be told “of course I could use agents like Thomas Cook!” and there was no need for me to come.

But I didn’t feel like wasting any more time, so I packed up my bag, carried copies of every document, carried extra photographs, and decided to go to Chennai by bus that very night.

I reached Chennai at dawn and called up my cousin brother Nitesh, who offered to pick me up and take me to his place to rest before going to the Philippines Consulate on Mount Road. I didn’t want to bother him, but given I barely slept in the bus (due to the nervousness), I accepted his offer. After breakfast, Nitesh dropped me at the consulate and was nice enough to wait for me, thinking that all I had to do was just drop all my documents and come back later to collect my stamped passport.

Philippines Consulate Chennai office
It begins

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Great weekend drive: Gingee Fort, Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram & East Coast Road

Continuing with my past travelogues, this is the second post (this was the first) on my road trips to the Union Territory of Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu (Wikipedia link, do read if 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: 8-9th December, 2007

Four of us, one car. One weekend, two destinations.

We left Bangalore around 6am on the same route as before. Soon after the Tamil Nadu border, we stopped at the A1 restaurant adjoining the Reliance Petrol station for breakfast (not sure if it’s still there now).

Hosur Road HP petrol bunk
The A1 restaurant was opposite the HP station on Hosur Road

The food was good, prices were economical, facilities were good (toilet, snack store etc.) and it was clean. By 8am, we were back on the good roads. Then we took the diversion on to the bad.

En route Pondicherry morning
The route is picturesque albeit, has its share of rough patches
En route to Pondicherry
The "highway" is narrow too

It was pretty much a non-stop straight drive to Pondicherry but we did take a break once we reached Gingee. I first noticed the hill on the way back from my first trip to Pondicherry.

Gingee Fort brick wall
Gingee Fort in the distance

This time, I made sure I checked it out. Only problem is, you have to climb quite a lot of steps to get to Gingee Fort. And it was hot.

Gingee fort pathI don’t remember if there was an entrance fee to the place but I did remember seeing a guy at the entrance. Either that or he was a beggar. Spare him some change anyway.

It took us nearly 20 minutes to climb to the top (we did stop at intervals for a breather and to drink lots of water). But once we got to the top, I didn’t regret the climb.

Gingee fort paddy field

Gingee Fort panaroma
Gingee Fort: A panorama comprised of 4 shots

According to Wikipedia, Gingee Fort was called the “Troy of the East” by the British and was well-fortified.

Gingee Fort door monkeyGingee Fort pillars

Gingee Fort panaroma
(A panorama comprised of 3 shots)

Gingee Fort templeGingee fort structure grassAfter spending around 15 minutes and after being sick reading some of the “___ hearts ____” messages that ruined the stone structures, we decided to make our way down.

Gingee fort temple structure
L-R: Ramesh, Loi and Joe

Gingee Fort treeIf you have an hour to spare and the stamina to climb a hundred steps or so, do make the effort to go to the top. Gingee Fort is not something you come across everywhere in India.

By 1:30pm, we were in Pondicherry and we drove straight to Beach Road — for two reasons. One, we were going to hang around Beach Road anyway and second, Loi was going to see an ocean/sea/bay for the first time in his life! For someone from a North East Indian state, the longing to hit the beach is one big aspiration. Though there really wasn’t much of a “beach” in Pondicherry city, the waters of the Bay of Bengal were good enough now.

Pondicherry Loi ocean
Loi's first taste of a 'coast'

After letting Loi enjoy his time (for a few minutes), we had lunch — decent, nothing worth recommending.

Pondicherry lunch restaurantAt lunch, we discussed our plans for the rest of the evening. The plan was to leave for Mahabalipuram that same day but we decided to take it easy and set off the next morning. Problem is, we hadn’t booked rooms. So after lunch and strolling around a bit, we tried all the hotels/lodges/guesthouses in and around Beach Road. Unfortunately, most of them were full or too expensive.

So we drove a bit away from town and found a resort where we got a hut for the four of us for around Rs. 1000 (sorry, don’t remember the name of the place). It was pretty basic but we took it as we only needed a place to crash for the night. After filling in the necessary paperwork, we checked in and then headed back to Beach Road. We hung around Beach Road until the sun set.

Pondicherry Le Cafe evening
Le Cafe on Beach Road, where we had our evening coffee
Pondicherry Ajantha sea view hotel
The Ajantha Sea View hotel on Beach Road

Pondicherry statue nightAfter our evening snack, we went around looking for… restaurants for our early dinner! 🙂

We decided on the Hotel de Pondicherry — ‘cos it looked all classy.

Hotel de Pondicherry bar restaurant
It's a fairly high-end joint

After dinner, we walked a bit more to soak in as much as we could of Beach Road as this was our last night in Pondicherry.

Pondicherry door lightPondicherry street nightThe next morning, we checked out of the resort at the break of dawn and got on to the famed East Coast Road to head for Mahabalipuram. We wanted to get on to this road early to avoid the traffic and it was a good move. It was a beautiful drive!

East Coast Road MamallapuramEast Coast Road MamallapuramEast Coast Road MamallapuramEast Coast Road Mamallapuram fishermanEast Coast Road Mamallapuram boat morningWe had to stop at certain points on the journey to take photographs.

The drive from Pondicherry to Mahabalipuram took us nearly 2 hours. En route, we saw the many projects that were taken up along this stretch to rehabilitate those affected by the 2004 Tsunami.

Once we reached the coastal town, our first stop was the Shore Temple.

Mamallapuram Shore templeShore Temple Mahabalipuram

Shore Temple MahabalipuramShore Temple MahabalipuramShore Temple Mahabalipuram Bay of BengalAfter the temple visit, we had breakfast from a beach side resort.

And then, hit the beach.

Mamallapuram beachMamallapuram beach sand

Mamallapuram beach Loi run
Loi doing the Baywatch run... he didn't get very far.

Mamallapuram beach statueAfter a while, we got a bit of drizzle from the skies, so we headed back to our car. We drove off to our next stop, the Paanch Rathas of Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Paanch Rath panaromic
(A panorama comprised of 4 shots)

Paanch Ratha templeIt’s not a very big site so we were done in around half-an-hour. After that, we decided to drive down to the other side of Shore Temple for lunch.

Mamallapuram beach fishing boatsMamallapuram Santana restaurantMamallapuram Blue Elephant restaurantMamallapuram Tina Blue ViewMamallapuram Bizarre BazaarThis is a part of Mahabalipuram that can be best described as a “mini-Goa” with its funky-named restaurants and stores selling the hobo-wares. And if you haven’t experienced Goa (or didn’t get what I wrote)… here is where you’ll find a lot of restaurants serving sea food and where you can do your shopping.

It was close to the beach as well which made it a good place to hang out. I bought some stuff for a friend and then decided to lunch.

Mamallapuram Moonrakers restaurant
Moonrakers: We sat all the way up

The reason we sat all the way up is because they asked us to. You see, a lot of restaurants here don’t have the license to serve beer. But they still stock it and serve… but in steel glasses and only upstairs. So the officials don’t catch them.

Since it was quite hot, we really couldn’t do without a glass of chilled beer. The sea food at Moonrakers was obviously very fresh with the fishermen being so close.

Mamallapuram Moonrakers seafood
Left: Fresh sea food; Right: REALLY fresh
Mamallapuram Moonrakers lunch

The food at Moonrakers was really good for the price (which was very reasonable).

After a satisfying lunch, it was back on to the ECR for Chennai.

Mamallapuram Chennai ECRMamallapuram East coast roadIt was yet another picturesque stretch. The drive on the ECR really is quite a pleasure ride… of course, that is unless you are someone who lacks lane discipline and ruins it for others.

We reached Chennai and then asked around as to how to essentially get out of the city and on to the Chennai-Bangalore highway.

After an hour or so in Chennai traffic, we finally made it to the outskirts.

And if you thought the ECR was the last of the good rides you’d get in Tamil Nadu…

Chennai Bangalore highway cloudChennai Bangalore highwayChennai Bangalore highway bridgeChennai Bangalore highway hillsChennai Bangalore highway signChennai Bangalore highway sunset… it’s not. 🙂

The Chennai to Bangalore highway is one of the best roads in India and even though you have to pass through 4 to 5 toll gates, it’s worth the money.

Seven hours later, we were in Bangalore city.

It was quite a packed weekend. Left on a early Saturday morning and returned on a Sunday night. Saw quite a bit and yet, we never really felt rushed or tired. Probably because it was my second time to Pondicherry so we really didn’t go around there much.

Safe to say, if you want a good road trip in South India — this is definitely it!

Camera used: Canon Powershot A95; post processing done in Photoshop CS3, especially the blues which were cyan heavy

P.S: I know, twice I’ve been to Pondicherry and I still didn’t go to Auroville. Well, there’s always a third time! 🙂

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