India has always been one of my top must-go list.
Tell that to my colleagues and they stare at me increduously.
To them, India conjures up images of dirty, undeveloped, poor and lack of hygiene.
On the other hand, I relish coming in contact with thousands of years of history, an exotic location where you heardly hear people talk about and of course the Indian cuisine. I love Indian food!
So when Theo asked if I wanted to join him at the tailend of his business trip to Bangalore, I didn’t hesitate. But I was a practical lady. No way am I bringing my children to India until they are much older.
My very first impression of India is the reception at Hotel Vivanta by Taj. It is a 5 or 6 star hotel that costs about SGD 300+ per night.
As I walked through the security gantry at the entrance, I was greeted warmly by at least 3 hotel staff even at 12 midnight. In fact through the course of my short stay here, this was the one thing that totally bedazzles me about the service culture in India. It is top notch and very personal.
However perhaps call me jaded, coming from a country where service excellence is not its strongest point, I wonder if the almost ‘compulsory’ tipping had anything to do with it.
After a comfortable night’s rest and a full breakfast, we headed out to the streets. What immediately struck me was the apparent rich-poor divide. Right across the road from our hotel is a huge classy shopping mall that carries branded apparels and a supermarket like Jasons.
We went over to check it out and observed that it had very few customers. Is it any wonder? The prices were not cheap! In fact, some of the household products are easily as expensive or more than that in Singapore.
As I looked out to the dusty streets below, I saw auto-rickshaw drivers and locals clad in their modest traditonal garb. These are not the people who can afford shopping in places like this, so who exactly was the mall for?
According to my quickly put together itinerary, we would only be spending one day in Bangalore. Tomorrow we would head south towards the historical city of Mysore, the one place you should not miss if you’re in Karnataka.
So the first order of business would be to find our transport south. I had initially planned to book a bus there. Based on the timings, it would seem that there is no difference in travel duration by bus or car so I thought the decision was pretty no-brainer.
We approached an auto-rickshaw driver and told him that we wanted to head towards to this particular bus station to book tickets. He nodded that he understood but ended up bringing us to a tour agency – Bharath Tours and Travels @ Richmond Road.
As we were new to these parts, I didn’t bother to argue and went ahead to enquire about our needs at the travel agency. The boss as it turned out was a really good salesman. At the end of an hour of negotiation, we agreed to part with Rs 9000 to hire a car and driver to bring us to Mysore and back over the course of the next 3 days.I agreed partly because Theo threatened that he would stay put at the hotel if I made him take the bus. Typical Singaporean tourist…
The travel agent also insisted that we booked our hotel accommodation with them as well but I declined vehemently. I hadn’t done my homework on the costs of hotels in Mysore and wasn’t sure if he was giving us the best price.
Anyway on hindsight, the cost difference was minimal but we found out that for hotels we booked with the agent, it usually came with a bed for the driver who accompanied us. As I ended up booking the hotel myself, our poor driver had to sleep in his car for two nights. I felt really bad about it.
With our itinerary settled, now was time to concentrate on Bangalore itself. We asked the rickshaw driver to bring us to Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, which according to Lonely Planet is one of the main attractions in the city.For the Rs 10 entrance fee, you get to walk around in a huge public park with trees, flowers and an occasional fountain. Okay, I admit, I wasn’t impressed. I have been pampered by Singapore’s beautiful sculpted gardens and this was nowhere like it.
However if you find yourself going mad with the incessant noise and air pollution, then perhaps a respite in the gardens is a welcome break from it all.
After strolling around for an hour, we met up with our driver again and asked him for a good place to have lunch. A place I spotted on our way here was mentioned in Lonely Planet – Mavalli Tiffin Road @ Lalbagh Road, and I asked if it was a good. He nodded his head and led us there on foot.
One of things I am grateful for living in Singapore is our multi-racial society. Because of this, it felt almost natural for me when we entered the narrow room crowding with dark-skinned locals queuing for their order.
It was very different when we were in France and Italy when we were around people whom we didn’t see everyday.
The experience in Mavalli Tiffin Room or MTR for short, is really unique and I daresay one of the places you should try eating at if this is your first visit to India. After paying for your set meal which cost Rs 160 per pax, you are led to the upstairs room to wait for your seat.
The room setting is like that of a non-airconditioned family room or canteen whichever you prefer. After you are seated, you are given a metal plate with compartments. Not long after, the waiters will start filling your plate with various types of curries, spices, vegetables, fried dough fritters from metal buckets.
I kinda lost count of how many varieties of food we were served but I believe to be close to 20 including our appetiser drink, ice-cream dessert and betel leaves for chewing. I guess the locals must be equally amused to see me whipping out my camera again and again to capture the changing contents of my plate.
And the food is great! I totally enjoyed every last bit of it, except for the oil that was ladled onto the rice. Eww… So if you don’t think you’d relish that, then ask them not to do so.
Otherwise, a perfect first local Indian meal and very friendly patrons who are more than happy to demonstrate how to enjoy their cuisine. Do note that curries here are a lot spicer than in Singapore.
After a satisfying meal, we were ready for some shopping and more sightseeing. Other places that he brought us to were the Bangalore Palace with an entrance fee of Rs 400 per pax. We didn’t enter the palace as according to our local driver aka guide, the Mysore palace is grander and more beautiful and cost half the price. So we smuggled some external shots before being shooed away by the guards.
Our driver also voluntarily brought us to the seat of the government called Vidhana Soudha. It is one impressive colonial looking building that measures more than 500,000 square feet in area!He also brought us to a few shops selling local products. The three most commonly sold souvenirs in southern India are gemstones, silk and sandalwood and almost every shop will bring you through identical range of products.
However prices do differ greatly between shops and it makes it ever harder to know whether you’re buying the genuine stuff or not. The only way to know for sure is to ask locals.
I bought a 3 carat garnet stone from a shop called New Heritage Collection @ Infantry Road for Rs 800 which Theo felt was too expensive and probably fake. I was somewhat comforted when I found out that the same stone costs Rs 1100 at another shop.
However I had to spend close to an hour talking to the shopowner just to find out how much it costs. He also shared that to test whether a stone is real is to put it through fire. Plastic would obviously melt. Thankfully I was vindicated when the gem I bought didn’t melt under fire. So at least I know New Heritage sells genuine stones.
By this time, I was already beginning to feel really unwell. I had been brewing a bacterial infection a couple of days before coming to India and it was getting ready to come out in full force.
We told our driver to cut short our trip and to bring us back to the hotel. He was visibly disappointed. We found out that for every referral he provides, he receives diesel vouchers who helps to subsidise the cost of his operation. We finally paid him Rs 500 for his efforts from 10am to 6pm.
This is an inflated amount. You could easily get around much lesser but I decided to pay more as this would hardly be a dent in our budget. It could however make a huge difference for him.
Besides I also thoroughly enjoyed our ride in the open-air rickshaw and the somewhat hair raising experience of dodging vehicles and pedestrians while consuming tonnes of fumes and dust.
The one thing I regretted not trying out in India was actually taking a walk along the streets. The lack of pavements and proper road crossings did make me think twice about it.
1 SGD = 44 Rs