Another thing to file under “Wasn’t expecting that!” The buses of Sri Lanka are eye catching. Very eye catching. Day and night they burst with color and bright decorations and lights.
Not all the buses were so exuberantly adorned. There are state buses (with staid, some might say boring, paint jobs), and private buses (wow! Not all are wow, but a lot.). The private buses are licensed for a specific number of runs per day, this means they linger a bit at every stop hoping for more passengers.
Did we actually ride the buses? No. We took trains when we could, but on routes with no trains we hired drivers. The buses looked pretty chaotic, and a few tourists with rental cars we spoke to confirmed that the buses are bullies on the road.
In addition to a bus journey taking a long time, it is recommended that you don’t put your luggage down below due to dust and mud, so you must pay for an additional seat and face the wrath of your fellow crowded in passengers. We decided that we didn’t need to experience the buses of Sri Lanka as passengers.
It’s easy to criticize or second guess a country’s public policy and governance, and Sri Lanka is working through a lot of challenges, but transportation is the lifeblood of any city, and even more important in rural areas. For the sake of the people of Sri Lanka I hope the announcement that a recently announced purchase of 500 new buses shows a commitment for improving transit. Many of the old buses are gross polluters.
This wraps up my bus post. Once a transit geek, always a transit geek.
What is it that we love best when traveling? Walking and biking, of course. Sri Lanka has challenged us with the need to do taxi transfers and tuk tuk trips to avoid daytime heat or nighttime elephants, or to get from a hotel or guesthouse to a site.
Our first morning in Sigiriya, we had our guest house owner drop us at the west entrance and Museum to buy our tickets by 6:45 am, so we could explore and climb the rock before it got too hot.
First a capital for King Kashyapa AD 477–495, and then a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
We were staying close enough to be able to walk back to our guesthouse for a late breakfast, which made us happy. Any time you walk in Sri Lanka you do have to decline a lot of tuk tuk offers, especially at a popular tourist site like Sigiriya Rock. But we press on and enjoy the walk.
Sri Lanka has no natural lakes. Starting in 300 BC the Kingdom began to construct reservoirs and tanks. The Sinhalese people were among the first to build artificial reservoirs to store water. These irrigation systems of the ancient world are still intact. Sri Lanka has ten thousand man made bodies of water, lakes, reservoirs, tanks, ponds, and stepwells.
With temperatures reaching 90f/32c in the early afternoon, our walk opportunities were limited to mornings and after 4pm. Not only is the heat and humidity oppressive, but the UV levels will burn this pale human in 15 minutes. Sunblock, long sleeves, umbrellas, that’s the only way I can get out and about.
Walking the small dirt roads is not without obstacles though. Sri Lanka has so many dogs, some wearing collars and belonging to a specific house, but many many more simply stray street dogs. Most ignore you after a hopeful glance for snacks, but some bark and come rushing towards you. Not fun. We accidentally solved the dog stress problem when I deployed my collapsible umbrella while walking by a dog and it recoiled in horror. Ah ha. Shade giver and dog deterrent – the humble collapsible umbrella.
Our second full day in Sigiriya we spent visiting the ancient and Sacred City of Pollonnaruwa. We had a car and driver to take us the 45 minutes to the site, and once there we rented bicycles to explore the site and it’s many amazing artifacts. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries between the 11th to 13th century after the destruction of Anuradhapura Kingdom (which we’ll also visit) in 993.
Riding bikes around this ancient site was such a unique experience, but we did wish for better curation of the experience. Even the museum, which we visited at the end of our ride around, didn’t do a great job of giving you a sense of how people lived in Polonnaruwa. We didn’t hire a guide, which most of the visitors did, so perhaps that was a mistake on our part, but we so much prefer doing things at our own pace and we know we’re happier without a guide. From what we overheard from the guides I don’t think we missed out on much information beyond what we had from our guide book.
The area around Sigiriya is not only an archeological sanctuary site, but also has elephants and rice farmers. We saw an elephant from the road when being driven back from Pollannaruwa. Our long walk took us alongside many rice fields. We were fascinated to see the methods the farmers use to either keep the elephants out of the fields, or to alert an overnight watcher of the presence of an elephant so an attempt could be made to deter the elephant using loud noises.
You never know what you’ll see walking around small rural roads. Local folks were unfailingly friendly and helpful. We reminded ourselves that the small children had possibly never seen tourists, the three years of very little to no tourism meant that their wide eyed stares were not a comment on our hot sweaty state. It can be a bit daunting to wander the back roads, but so rewarding.
Taking trains is a big part of our travel joy. Riding trains with open windows and doors, winding through tropical jungles and tea growing areas, feeling the soft warm air on your face, seeing life as the train winds along – that is magnificent.
Our go to train advice site, The Man in Seat 61, recommends sitting in the non AC carriages to take advantage of the open windows.
From what we’ve read the trains got much more crowded starting June 2022, when the rising cost of gasoline and bus tickets increased train ridership by 50%. As tourists we are able to buy our way into the comfort of the reserved carriages, but we do wonder why ticket prices for foreigners aren’t higher, as one encounters at museums and archeological sites. There is much need for upgrades to the rail system and new trains and higher tourist prices could help fund that.
We don’t want to sweep the problems Sri Lanka is going through under the rug, and post only fun photos without acknowledging the challenges the country is facing, but in many areas you don’t see the difficulties as a tourist. You can live your tourist life blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of struggle many are still facing. If you pay attention to little things, while in line at the grocery store for example, you recognize the stress on parent’s faces as they watch the register add up, and you hear from men who worked in Dubai but came home during the pandemic and are now working towards getting employment in Japan or Korea.
One of our drivers was taking Japanese classes. He had calculated that five years of work in Japan would be enough for him to come home and start a solid life for himself, his wife, and their two young daughters. As Americans who admire the bravery of immigrants, who come from a country of immigrants, we understand the determination and hope that the hard working people we meet find a way through and forward.
We have a few more places to visit in Sri Lanka, and I’m sure a few more rice and curry meals to eat. We wish we could support every single small business we come across, buy every trinket, and eat at every restaurant, but failing that we will tell you all that Sri Lanka is an amazing place to visit. We’re in Sigiriya now, more on that to come. Happy travels.
The diversity of Sri Lanka blew us away in our second week, as we headed further east and up to the highlands.
Based in the small town of Tissamahama , we choose to do two separate safaris to Yala and Bundala National Parks. And although the parks are relatively close to each other, our experiences were vastly different.
Yala is the most popular park and the one nearly every one visits. We chose the “half day” morning safari which leaves at 5 am and ends by noon. The drive in the open sided safari truck in the dark at dawn was refreshing and we saw an elephant and a jungle cat (rare to spot!) before we even got to the park entrance. After admission fees are paid, the Jeeps then queue up outside the gate until the opening bell at 6:15am. Then a somewhat crazy race ensues as 50-100 jeeps head into the park and pan out in Sector 1, one of the areas of Yala that allows visitation and borders the beautiful coast.
The scenery is arguably more dramatic in Yala with massive rock outcrops and a large river. And Yala has Leopards and sloth bears, which are not usually found in Bundala. But everybody wants to see a Leopard. After seeing a leopard in India, we weren’t as crazed to see one here, but did catch a glimpse over a somewhat comical scrum of gridlocked jeeps on a small side road (all roads are dirt and rough). As the morning pressed on, our guide was as able to find a bit more solitude as we viewed elephants and a vast array of bird life.
On our second day we opted for an afternoon tour of the smaller Bundala NP. It’s also along the coast but characterized by large brackish lagoons and coastal forest and scrub.
We actually enjoyed the intimacy of Bundala and we had a much better focus on amazing bird species from a fantastic park guide who has worked there for 20 years. And to answer the title question about elephants, “maybe, unless they are in Musth (male heat) when they can be aggressive and grumpy”
So here’s the other revelation of our time in India and Sri Lanka….I think I’m becoming a birder. It started with the enthusiasm of the birders we met in the Western Ghats, but has been building as I read and learn more, as well as using the fantastic apps by the Cornell Lab of Orinthology, Merlin and EBird
We will certainly be picking up binoculars or a monocular in Japan for sure. And birding and bike touring are a natural combination. This can now be added to the list of “things I never had time or patience for while working”….though most people had me pegged for the model train basement type-;)
We then took a car transfer up to Ella and the southern hill country of Sri Lanka, And although we were only at about 3,500 feet, we immediately appreciated the slightly cooler temps.
One of our challenges of independent travel and a focus on the trains is the need to be based in more touristed towns with services and connections. Some people choose to rent a car here and that does give you a lot more flexibility, but as we know, it also ties you down in other ways and makes working in the epic train opportunities here difficult. So our strategy is to be based in a convenient place with tourist services, but then try to do different things than the norm, usually via walks and treks.
Luckily there is a nascent long distance hiking trail in development across the hill country and mountains. The 300km, 22 stage “Pekoe Trail” has been initially mapped and stages are now available on many trail apps, including AllTrails and Wikiloc.
So in Ella, instead of being driven around in a van or tuktuk all day to see 10 random things, we walked two stages of the Pekoe Trail from Ella. They were both great and although touch a few very popular tourist sites in places (by design) we mostly had the trail 100% to ourselves.
The trail will be a brilliant addition to tourism options in Sri Lanka, and spread the positive tourist impacts out along many more communities and people than the current concentration on tourist hot spots. Interestingly it’s sponsored partially by a grant from the EU, which has certainly seen the success of long distance trails in Europe, such as all the Camino routes in Spain and Portugal.
We look forward to tracking the progress of the trail as dedication and signage is scheduled to be installed later this year. The lodge we stayed in Ella didn’t seem to know about it, or diminished it a bit as I think it’s seen as a bit of an existential threat to the tourism status quo, which is tour vans and tuktuks taking people around to the same sights and based in one of ten inland tourist hotspots. The coast is a separate beast and has hundreds of kilometers of beaches and towns, but mostly people focused on a tropical beach holiday.
We are continuing our journey in Sri Lanka, and are still awed by the universal friendliness of the people. We’ve had wonderful encounters with locals and some interesting conversations about the current challenges here. And there are still major economic hardships. Not enough jobs and opportunities for talented and motivated people. Not enough food for many who have slipped back into poverty.
And it’s been hard not to support EVERYONE we meet as they all have needs and a family to feed (and will often mention this), but we do what we can to be generous on our way. The boom times of tourism here from 2009-2019 were clearly different, but there is a bit of new optimism that things are finally getting better.
We sure hope so, but will also be voting for politicians back in the US that support more generous and compassionate immigration policies. We have an excess of space and opportunities to share still.
We have a new standard for judging ease of entry into a country. It’s not just how straightforward and easy the visa is, e-visa or otherwise, but also how easy and quick it is to get a local SIM card. Taiwan set the bar high back in January, but Sri Lanka is a very close second. That quick SIM transaction at the airport, and the joy of being able to get a hassle free taxi to our hotel had us nodding to each other – I think we’re going to like this country.
It’s easy to assume proximity means similarity, we assumed that with the UK and Ireland and were very wrong. We had heard while traveling in India that Sri Lanka was “India lite”, so again we assumed it would feel familiar and similar to India. Wrong again!
We’ve been reading about the troubles Sri Lanka has faced since 2019, and the economic crisis which is on going, and we were warned by a few Indians not to come here. So, we expected some issues. The first things we noticed were the things that made our arrival so easy. E-visa. SIM card. Taxi. All straight forward and easy. The drive to our hotel was much quieter than we had become accustomed to in India – here, honking is just not as common. It makes the streets feel so much calmer.
If you knew nothing of the financial crisis Sri Lanka is facing you could be forgiven for thinking all is well. The unfinished high rises under construction in Colombo, the executive and judicial capital of Sri Lanka (Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, a Colombo suburb, is the legislative capital.), are the first sign we saw that all is not well. There is less car traffic on the streets, based on our reading, due to the high cost of gasoline and diesel. Trains and buses are more crowded than previously. But these are things that as a first time visitor you wouldn’t know.
After only one night in Colombo we headed out by train to Galle, about a 2 hour train ride south. Our first Sri Lankin train! On the easy reservation site Rich booked us two seats in the air conditioned reserved seat (AFC) carriage.
Galle is best known for the 16th century walled fort built by the Portuguese, added on to by the Dutch, and finally occupied by the British. The Fort, as it’s referred to by the locals, has plenty of hotels and guest houses, lovely streets with few cars and scooters, and tourist friendly restaurants for the mostly Russian and French tourists we shared the streets with. We stayed in the new town, at the Brixia Cafe and Guesthouse, which was perfect for us. We could walk to the Fort and enjoy seeing what the new town was like.
You won’t be in Sri Lanka for very long before you notice how friendly people are. And helpful. Smiles and greetings, quick chats to ask where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Sri Lanka. With the troubles they’ve had you would expect folks to be a bit sour on life, but they aren’t. Our guesthouse host spoke openly about the challenges he faced during Covid, separated from his Italian wife for a year and half, and how he’d been lucky to get his building completed before inflation made it impossible, but he had the same positive attitude and warmth we continue to encounter.
It can feel awkward visiting a country going through struggles like Sri Lanka, but we know that tourism was an important part of the economy, visits peaked in 2018 at 2.5 million visitors. By contrast only 400k arrived in 2022. The upsides are fewer crowds, obviously, and an easier time booking accommodations. The downside is an ever present awareness of those missing tourists and their money. Again, you wouldn’t really know how different it is from the locals attitudes towards you. Or, maybe we benefit from the ‘wow, we do miss tourists’ realization. We try to share the love, going to little beach side restaurants and buying juices, beers, and meals and tipping generously.
Our beach stay was three nights, at a lovely beach side hotel where we could have a morning swim before breakfast, and walk out our door to the restaurant for meals and cocktails, and we can walk along the narrow streets and pathways to more family run restaurants. We can see that in the time of 2.5m tourists per year this was a much busier area, with a lot of guesthouses sitting empty right now. Thank goodness for the tourists who are here, from Russia, France, Germany, a few British and even fewer Americans.
We’re headed out to the safari part of our Sri Lanka stay, hopefully the next post will feature elephants. So far we are very happy with our Sri Lanka stay, and we hope for easier times and more stability for the people here. And we hope for our fellow tourists to keep visiting and keep spending.
India was incredible. It’s so overwhelming in its vastness, yet can be so friendly at a smaller scale.
There is nowhere we have experienced a broader range of moods. The many highs are unforgettably etched in your brain, just next to the pungent lows.
And in our fourth week of a big circuit of southern India, it continued to surprise us. It’s surprising that it works at all. It’s a global blessing that it’s all relatively peaceful, given the religious, cultural, and regional diversity. Let’s really hope this does not change.
It’s also fascinating to see how people have adapted to cope with it’s challenges. Vagueness and bureaucracy are endemic and seem to be the enemy of progress. Yet the dynamic new tech and innovation sectors are amazingly efficient. Two worlds.
One surprise of this visit to me is the fact that so much of the old world and customs still dominate life outside the metro areas. I thought things would have changed a bit more. Municipal services still don’t seem to be strong. Public spaces are not cherished and although cleanliness in the home is paramount, keeping common spaces trash free is still a difficult thing to experience for people used to more proper sanitation (and much more consumption per capita, but just better hidden!).
But as much as I have been intoxicated by the new metros, sights, sounds, and conversations with so many kind and interesting people, I was equally aghast at the state of road transport. It’s hostile, aggressive, dangerous, and classist. The National highways are death traps and have 30% of fatalities despite only representing 2% of the road system. Our last week really highlighted this as we had 3 road transfers in a row to navigate the center and east coasts of Tamil Nadu. In some cases, buses were an option (with additional transfers on each end), but the buses are also dangerous.
So my advice to future travelers is to avoid the roads as much as possible…book your trains early and plan your trip around them. When you do need a car transfer, only do it by daylight and make sure the car is decent and has working seat belts. I can see why people choose a nice driver or transfer van tour option. Of course you can ask your driver to drive slower or take fewer passing risks, but this can tough to overcome with language barriers and the endemic mania that are the norm of Indian roads.
And to be honest, a majority of people in cars were just plain mean, and generally have low respect for pedestrians. It was pretty horrible and stressful, and degraded the quality of life in places such as Ooty. It is unhealthy to body and mind. And as Cheryl likes to note, it has the biggest impact on women, who seem to be the majority of pedestrians walking on roads to conduct their daily duties…. and there are many duties.
It’s a tragedy of the commons. We did see a few feeble attempts to influence behavior with messaging, but unless a massive and systemic change is made, it may only get worse as more cars are added to the mix.
But we are so glad to have made the journey back to India. it’s added to our understanding of its challenges and boosted our appreciation again of the daily struggles of so many. It gives us both hope and fear for two disparate futures.
Thanks to all those who shared their kindness along the way, and we wish you all the best. Keep in touch.
Transportation continues to be a big topic of discussion for us. And a big source of frustration. Our stay in Fort Kochi was nice, the fort and beach area is away from the city itself, and a chill area with big trees, some small streets and lanes to walk, and friendly people.
But like everywhere else, with cars and scooters dashing and honking, people on foot get short shrift. You are the bottom rung of the transportation ladder, and you know it.
We learned very quickly to go out early for our walks. Before breakfast. Not only is the temperature cooler, but there are fewer cars and scooters about, so less wrangling for road space. Notice I say road space since sidewalks are pretty uncommon outside any city center commercial street- and even on some of those streets. When we caught a predawn taxi to the train station we realized the locals got out very early to walk and jog the quieter streets.
The trains are popular since the alternative for many of these destinations is driving. We really try hard to stay off the roads in cars. The driving is tough. Not for non locals I think. And we try even harder to stay off the roads at night, other than short auto rickshaw trips in towns. On this trip we have hired a car and driver for several transfers, and it’s no picnic either. We sit in the back firmly belted in and try not to watch what’s going on as cars and scooters and buses overtake and honk and swerve. We always let our driver know we are in no rush and much more interested in safety over speed.
We were super happy with Rich’s choice of accommodation in Kollam, the Ashtamudi Villas, right on the lake. Even though all we could book was a non AC room we were fine. And we had a lovely neighbor, Karen from Plymouth UK, with whom we went out on tours facilitated by the guys running the lodge.
It was a good time for us to come to India. After my breast reduction surgery we knew I wouldn’t be able to bike or do anything very strenuous for a while, so India was a good fit. I haven’t carried my backpack yet, on transfer days Rich wears his backpack and carries mine, but most transfers are door to door, or train station to taxi to door, so not too much toting for Rich. But, even me, always willing to lean into sloth, I want more activities that will require muscles over motors. We are accustomed to much more active lifestyles.
Stay tuned for more India. As we say to each other, the being places in India is lovely, the getting there is the challenge.
So one thing we are noticing as we travel through parts of Southern India is the clear growth of domestic tourism since our last visit: It’s been refreshing to stay places and not be surrounded solely by European or other “western” tourists, as this makes the travel experience a bit more rewarding.
The rising middle class of India is over 200 million strong and growing, and they are influencing travel and tourism here more than ever. Foreign visits are still below 2019 levels, but domestic tourism and travel continues to grow substantially. So does India really need (or want) foreign visitors? And what happened to many of the business that catered mostly to foreign tourists?
The short answer is that many of them closed and have not reopened. In the Tamil Nadu hill station of Ooty, many of the pre-Covid travelers cafes and restaurants listed in guidebooks and online had closed. And service at the ones that survived suffered serious interruptions. But fret not weary traveller, as they are being replaced by new trendy cafes, restaurants, and other businesses that a western traveller will enjoy, but will need to learn to share with local (and much hipper) Indians.
The modern growth and poverty reduction in India over the past 16 years is a great thing, and classic traveller towns of Asia may be legendary and great fun to meet other travelers, but they are always a curated experience. Plus, modern Indian cities and the rise of tech and related services are just as important as understanding the symbolism of old temples IMO. And modern India is going to have a big influence on the world over the next century with one of the fastest growing economies and large population growth.
And of course you have always been able to meet “real Indians” at lower cost lodging, but often there are too extreme differences in socio-economic factors to have a relatable conversation based on common frames of references. And English is often limited to middle and upper classes or people in the tourism trade. Sure, we cherish our interactions with any local, no matter how brief or limited, but to us, it is also equally fascinating to learn about the lives of other other educated professionals in a very dynamic place.
Or maybe you are lucky enough to have close contacts, business ties, or even family here….that is always the best experience, and you are probably meeting lots of people. But one resounding theme in the South has been how nice everyone is, especially away from the main tourist areas.
So after 4 nights in Mysore, we finally headed to more remote areas near Masinagudi by hired driver/taxi. There are no train options and the vague bus info I could find involved 2 transfers. And with Cheryl still unable to carry her pack and 35c heat and sun… you get the idea. Car transfers here are affordable and often take out massive stress of uncertain buses and rickshaw connections. We’ve learned not to torture ourselves excessively in our second visit to India. It turns out this car trip included a route through the Mudumalai Tiger reserve and was delightful, as we saw two wild elephants up the hill from the car as we passed through beautiful landscape. (FYI- It was about INR5,500 or $US65 for a 2 1/2 hour trip with coffee/tea/bathroom stop…maybe 4,000 rupees if you shop around but we let our hotel arrange and the little sedan and driver was nice.)
We stayed 3 days at the “Jungle Hut” next to the Mudumalai Reserve, which is part of 4 national parks and reserves which make up the Wester Ghat Mountains biosphere. It’s a UNESCO global diversity hotspot (one of 36) so protecting the endangered and endemic species is a priority. We loved the Jungle Hut, with its great guides, food, vibe, and staff engagement.
It also appeared that the area was being managed well, with a balance of needed tourism dollars and protection of the environment. Perhaps a little more regulation of safari jeeps outside the reserve is needed, but it seemed many area residents are directly involved in the local reserves, or at least reap some of the benefits of money coming from tourism into the their villages. (There are 8 smaller villages that are part of Masinagudi). India has done a good job expanding and managing natural reserves and animal counts are increasing for tigers, elephants, leopards, panthers, bears, and other large fauna. But it’s not easy. We also saw serious anti-poaching patrols.
So we sadly left the Jungle Hut once again by car transfer to Ooty,, “Queen of the Hill Stations”. But as we made our way up the 36 marked hairpin curves to Ooty, all I could think was wow, what an amazing Tour de France stage this would make -:).
Oh, but the logistics! And logistics are what often takes a toll on independent travelers in India. Unless you go the 5 star tour route, doing just about anything in India always seems to come with unexpected challenges or complications. (And a 5 star tour does not buy you safe roadways or clean air outside your AC cocoon.)
Being fiercely independent travelers, we love to find our own way, but recognize sometimes a guide or car transport is needed. But in most cases, all could be done by independent travelers if there was more information provided. Traveling in almost any other country has been easier, including recently in Morocco and Turkey (especially Turkey…a joy), as interactions are more straightforward. There are cultural differences that are hard to adapt to, even after weeks or months here. The local tourists do much better I suspect, as there is more comfort with the systems, customs, and still strict class structure.
So as Cheryl likes to say repeatedly when I complain about a challenge here, “Square peg, round hole!” We are clearly more comfortable with predictable mass transit, cycling, and walking. And I am always torn about guides, as appreciate guide roles provide jobs, but so many times, guides in museums or other tourist sights are just a replacement for any form of curation, or often just repeat what you read on Wikipedia. Wildlife guides are essential and a huge benefit.
But in my naive American perspective, it seems that if India made things easier for independent tourists, more would visit, and spend even more money. Right now, many places are just too challenging to deal with to bother with, linger, or explore further.
One positive change from 2006 is the introductions of E-visas, which has increased tourism visits significantly. But that’s only the first step, as there was still a baffling amount of forms to fly to and enter India. We first submitted all our personal and trip information to get a Visa, including photographs. Next was the mandatory info on the airline app, yet we still got caught out at check-in missing the Air Suvidha form, which was added in January for entry from “high risk” countries. We knew (and somewhat understand) the added PCR tests due to China”s surge in cases, but can’t imagine any scenario in all of India where this form will prevent one case of COVID post entry. Most governments have realized the futility of such measures when COVID is all about in country, but it shows action for politicians.
So we have detailed e-visa with photo, the Air Suvida form, and all other COVID docs, and then get to immigration and are directed to a confusing side desk for E-visas….but first, fill out another manual form with the same info. The few (half dozen) foreign Nationals were all confused and then trying to share the agents one pen and understand why a fourth form was needed….then to immigration desk for questioning….where we were going, my job, was I young to be retired? And immigration officers seemed to be baffled by a tourist listing a hotel as address in India. We’re tourists! Cheryl somehow got less of a rigamorale. Maybe it was the purple hair. Maybe, it seemed, he was trying to be a bit playful and curious, but after all the forms, I wasn’t really in joking mood. Plus, you NEVER joke in immigration or customs unless prompted!
Then to customs ( no one there…walked through?). We then managed to get lucky and find the lone ATM inside arrivals that had cash. (Runs out later in the day apparently, so then you are forced to change cash at poor rates) And then to the one SIM card booth where were lucky to be first in line and getting two Vodaphone SIMs which took about 20-25 minutes, including new digital photos. The time was not the staff’s fault, as they had to enter endless info to register us, as apparently SIM cards are tightly controlled here out of security concerns. The SIM cards work fine and were very reasonable cost 1000INR for 28 days with 1.5GB/day plus bonus on weekends. But note that Airtel has a better network, but getting SIMs outside the airport can have additional challenges.
Next we decided to use the official Airport cabs….which, oh boy, had no one waiting (red flag!). We got in and asked about the meter….as I then noticed the official one seemed to be upside down on the floor and he showed me his phone which had a “meter”. Ughh….and no seatbelts. Ok, but at least he was fairly mellow, preferring to straddle two lanes on the highway most of the way to our modest hotel in Indiranagar. The fare was 2100 INR….more than double than fares listed by Ola or Uber, which explains the lack of line and what all the locals were doing waiting outside the terminal. Welcome to India. But the good news is that a metro is being built to the airport! (Which you know we will take.)
I realize to most natives and past visitors to India it feels as if I’m a man waving fist at seagull. Futile. But India could attract more tourists if some things were more user friendly. The above airport process in Taiwan took 1/4 the time and 5% the stress.
Another issue is the train reservation system for the national railway, IRCTC, can be figured out, but it takes a LOT of patience and working out the payment system for international credit cards. The website (App promised for years…) is twitchy with overlays, ads, videos, and pop up windows. Cmon India, this is your national railway…a more streamlined booking platform and App similar to most modern railways and airlines would be great.
As Cheryl noted in our last post, there are plans to modernize and expand railway service, but will it be fast enough to keep up with the explosion of car ownership and discount air travel. These modes are definitely now the preferred way of travel for the middle and upper classes. But at a huge cost to the environment. The car ownership growth here is a time bomb, and already crippling cities, big and small, as well as killing 160,000 people a year.
And although intercity buses fill a big transport need, most run at night only, and the many decent booking apps don’t take foreign credit cards…..still trying to crack this travel challenge with Google/Amazon Pay or PayPal. But you can generally find something the day before or last minute, but it may not be your first choice for time or comfort. But we are lucky, as we can always buy ourselves out of most situations, even if it means an expensive car hire to the next destination. Flying is often an option too, but we have vowed not to fly in country as much as possible.
So if you are still reading this rant, please know that I think India is a truly unique and fascinating place and we are savoring all the experiences as we head through Kerala now. A cultural and social anthropologists dream. A political and global force. An incredible mix of hundreds of cultures and languages that somehow keeps it together as the worlds largest democracy.
But you don’t make it easy India, and maybe that’s what it’s all about. Happy travels!
Rich and I last traveled in India over 16 years ago. He and my friends will attest that I did not have a great time that last trip. As interesting and unique as I found the country, there were things younger me couldn’t get past. The inequality, for women and for those less fortunate. The crowds. The traffic. Never being left alone to enjoy anything in peace. The poverty. It was a lot.
I think many travelers and tourists are overwhelmed on their first trip to India. Why, friends asked, are you going back? Well, I replied, we were only in the north in our last trip and people say that North and South in India are as different as in the US. Our first good chat with a local gentleman at our first dinner in Bengaluru confirmed that. He went to North India once, he said, from his native Bengaluru, and it was so different. Like a different country. And, I’m older now, more mature, lots of grey hair. Less likely to attract negative attention. Ok, so I did have my hair dyed purple before leaving Bangkok which means no grey is showing, and I have bright purple hair. Attention? Yes. But it’s my fault this time.
So, can my older wiser self settle in to enjoy India more than I did 16 years ago? I think so. It helps that Rich is an enthusiastic traveler in addition to being the best travel planner. We both love experiencing a place as independently as possible. Walking and taking transit as much as we can keeps us happy. Our only taxi in Bengaluru was from the airport to our hotel. All other trips were metro and walking.
Our last four hotels have all been within a block of a metro or subway line. Taipei, Taiwan, two different hotels in Bangkok, one above the MRT and one by the SkyTrain, and now Bengaluru, a block from a purple line station of the Metro. Not an accident, just good planning from Rich. We share a pretty healthy dislike of having to rely on taxis. Every car trip added to a city is a bad thing. For the air, for people’s safety, and for noise pollution. In India the noise is mostly of beeping horns, the scooters are quieter here than the motor bikes in Bangkok – thankfully. But the beeping! Incessant.
Since I’m still recovering from breast reduction surgery Rich is carrying both backpacks. Thankfully, the train station connects to a metro stop with a dedicated walkway so for our train ride to Mysore we again avoided a taxi trip. To enter the metro system you have to put your bags through a scanner, and then be wanded by a security guard, men to one side and ladies to the other in a small curtained booth. My first time I actually stopped for the wanding, but my second time I followed the lead of the local in front of me who didn’t even break stride as she passed through the curtains.
Our destination, Mysore, is less friendly to walking trips. For starters it’s hotter here, up to 90f/32c in the afternoon, and sidewalks are not standard. We feel a bit like square pegs in round holes, but we persevere, heading out in the morning to walk to what we can, and taking auto rickshaws back in the heat of the day.
A friend in SF sent us a link to a map of step wells in India (thank you Gisela!), and we took a taxi to this one a bit outside of town. This is a fairly simple stepwell, many are much more ornate. Built to capture water and as temples, construction of these stepwells hit its peak during Muslim rule from the 11th to 16th century – per Wikipedia.
Built in the 8th century this Kalyani, or stepwell, was cleared of garbage and restored in the past few years.
Stepwell visit complete, we had our taxi driver head back towards town and drop us off to wait for the train museum to open. Sitting on a wall in the shade and watching Sunday morning activities was actually quite nice. On our last trip to India I don’t remember being able to sit unmolested by curious or begging locals. Here in Mysore, although there aren’t many tourists back yet, most folks walk by us with only a curious look (Rich is quite tall and I have purple hair, so not unexpected.), a smile, or an offer of an auto rickshaw.
It pains me to be reminded that so much of the history tourists are encouraged to see and celebrate in India is colonial history. The railway has its roots in British rule. From an article by The Wire.IN “Between 1850 and 1910, 94% of Indian broad gauge locomotives were built in Britain and only 2.5 in India. During the Second World War, preconditions for purchases from outside of Britain were relaxed but still the overall balance remained disproportionately tilted in favour of Britain. Thus, prior to independence in 1947, India imported 14,420 locomotives from Britain, built 707 itself and purchased 3,000 from other countries.” However, we were pleased to see what to us are very familiar planning presentations for the ongoing improvements and upgrades to Indian Rail.
Although Mysore requires more auto rickshaw trips we are managing to walk to some destinations in the morning. The zoo. The Mysore Palace – which is the second most visited attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, apparently.
We went back to the palace on foot one morning. The neighborhood across the street from our hotel fascinates us. One thing I have found that I really enjoy when traveling is making eye contact with women, particularly women my age, and exchanging smiles. Sometimes the smile only come from me. Americans smile a lot, and if you ask other cultures we smile for no reason and it’s weird! I always make a special effort when I see women in a Niqab, the veil and face covering which leaves the eyes clear. Five years ago Rich and I were in Indonesia and both struck up independent conversations with a couple (bathroom at a train station), and she was wearing a Niqab. It made me wonder how often women in Niqab are overlooked, or even ignored, by folks who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a women who veils or covers. In Indonesia we all laughed to see our partner walk out of the restroom chatting with their partner. When I make eye contact with a woman, of any age, and nod, and she nods and smiles back, I feel like I’ve made a connection, however small.
Our walk to the zoo took us through this neighborhood, and our walk to the palace. It was fun to see the children being packed into auto rickshaws for the trip to school. I counted nine children in one rickshaw. Ladies, I assume maids for the houses, were sweeping and watering down front stoops and steps, and drawing elaborate rangoli or korams in rice flour.
You can understand how a simple 15 minute walk to the zoo turned into a tour of its own.
So am I better at travel in India this time? Yes and no. We are more experienced travelers, but India doesn’t really suit our travel style. It’s challenging to be independent travelers here, which is why we see so many tour groups at our hotel being loaded into an AC bus after breakfast. It’s hard to book trains, or figure out local buses, and it’s challenging to walk many places. Rich has been working out in the hotel gym, but since I’m still recovering I can only walk. No yoga or arm workouts yet, so I’m feeling antsy. But the highs of India are indeed high and I’m glad we’re here. I love seeing and learning about new things. Tomorrow we leave Mysore and head to a lodge stay near a nature reserve. It’s not great tiger viewing season, but we can always hope, and the bird watching is supposed to be amazing.
This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.
A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.
But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.
Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.
But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.
There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.
We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.
At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.
So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.
Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.
On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will and money to execute the plan.
Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvements, but it’s a modest fee (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, and monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure. We all love Thailand, so we should help pay to make it more sustainable.
But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.
So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in them.
It is a bit encouraging, but pedestrians are still mostly a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means. Tree planting and protection does seem to be coming with new development, which helps everything, heat, air, and sun protection for walkers.
But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.
Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!