South India Travel Tips - 2012
By Kavan Ratnatunga
Travel involves many issues, and one often learns the hard way from
experience, only to forget the next time you travel. So I record below
bits of information on various topic, I picked up during my
travel to south India
that would have helped me if I knew before travelling.
Booking Sri Lankan Airline e-ticket to Chennai online was easy.
The website displayed an array of optional dates and flights available
with the total cost of ticket including Taxes. If you are flexible on
travel dates and time you could save a few thousand rupees.
The ticket you download as a .PDF file to print says
The Credit Card holder must be a member of the travelling party. At
the Airport you will be requested to produce the Credit Card that you
used to purchase your e-ticket. You will not be allowed to travel if
above two conditions are not fulfilled
So don't forget to take that credit card to Airport or lose it.
I lost my wallet few days before travel
and was extremely lucky to get it back. Not sure what I could have
done if I didn't.
Indian Travel Visa
The Indian tourist visa application also done online printed and
submitted with travel documents and two copies of recent color
photographs which is now printed on Visa as a security measure. A Visa
for a Sri Lankan takes 3 working days and cost around LKRs650. As a
dual citizen I had to hand fill an extra form and pay an additional
FAX fee of about LKRs300 and wait six working days. The status of the
visa can be checked online and picked up. The Visa is valid for 3
months after issue.
Indian Train Tickets
Booking Indian train travel online was a challenge. Indian railways
does not accept international Visa/MC and did not say so till I asked
Customer Care by E-mail. I had to use my son's Amex to ensure a
reservation before it filled up. This online minefield I guess ensures
that local Travel agents remain in business, charging, as I discovered
a 100% markup on Indian train tickets.
Went by night train from Mysore to Chennai. I booked in the class 2A
sleeper. It was one large coach with about 32 sleepers in 2 tier bunk
beds with Toilets you don't want to visit at either end. The class 3A
has 3 tiers of bunk beds and must be far more cramped. The online
train booking did not allow selection of sleeper. The system allocated
the next available based just on preference of lower or upper bunk.
The single row of bunks along the side of train was not OK for anyone
over 6 feet, The pairs of bunks across, a taller person could stretch
legs out into corridor.
The upper Bunk on the side was OK, but the lower bunk had two halfs
that folded down to make the bed leaving a slight gap in the middle.
Sleeping along the direction of travel of train makes it more
sensitive to changes in motion of train.
An elderly couple got in and were desperate since they had been
assigned upper bunks after being first two on waiting list. A
mutually beneficial exchange between 4 travellers and we were all
Indian Intercity Bus Tickets
Online Indian bus booking was also a challenge. redbus.in did not
accept international Amex but accepted my MC after correct answers to
security checks.which included the E-mail associated with the credit
Attempts to change the travel date of ticket was not easy. The online
travel agent RedBus.in did not allow preponement or postponement of
travel date. I could only cancel the ticket hoping to get refund less
a 15% penalty sometime, and buy a new ticket. Regretted having booked
and paid for a ticket in advance, which made travel less flexible.
Went by KPN Bus AC Sleeper from Trichy to Bangalore.
The night Sleeper Bus was a new experience. The bus has 30 beds in
2 tiers. 2+1 across and 5 deep. I was on the upper Bunk and had a
smoother ride than the lower bunk which felt more of the road.
On the ticket, the Reporting Time, was 10:15 PM, for 10:30 PM
Departure. Glad we went early. We were sent by a shuttle bus to
another pickup place at 10 PM, and had to wait there till almost 11 PM
to get on Bus.
Did go once in a local Bus in Chennai to two large Dept stores in T
Nagar. The problem was to know where to get off. Luckily a passenger
who spoke English instructed the conductor to inform us of the stop.
I had only made an E-mail reservation at arrival city Chennai,
so I could list an Indian Address in the Indian Visa application.
I selected the hotel after checking reviews on the Internet.
A reasonable clean hotel Room with AC in south India costs around
INRs1650 (US$30). Also very useful is
the 24-hour checkout policy in most hotels we stayed in. Cash in one
hotel gave a 20% discount. It is however essential to look at the room
and Toilet before checking in. We often asked to be shown another
room before we were satisfied. It was not difficult to find a
reasonable hotel. None were fully booked. So I was glad to have not
made paid advance reservations.
Most of the Hotels we stayed at had Cable TV in the room so there
was a wide range of English channels and News to watch.
Most Indian Restaurants are vegetarian. Finding a non-veg restaurant
is an challenge. The best was the Hoysala Village Resort at which we
had both breakfast and Lunch on way to Halebidu and returning from
Belur. It was an expensive but beautiful resort. Buying water and
soft-drinks outside the hotels was a lot less costly. Ensure known
Brand name and a sealed bottle when buying water, soft-drinks or fruit
We tried the hotel Laundry when we stayed more than one day. The one day
service was OK and reasonably priced.
South India is warm so most hand washed cloths will dry overnight under
the fan, or over the day if you keep the fan on when you leave for sight
seeing during the day.
All of the hotels tried to make sure you switched off power when you left
the hotel room by needing you to put the key tag into a slot to switch on
all power to the room. A power indicator light was fixed outside the room.
I nice idea except that the key could be removed from key-tag to lock the door :-).
Indian currency like that of Sri Lanka is not issued by Banks outside
India. Legally you need to take an International currency or Travellers
cheques. The street price for INRs1 was
LKRs2.55 Withdrawal from an ATM gave the correct rate of LKRs2.40 but
HSBC bank charge LKRs400 per withdrawal. So you need to find out what
your bank charges before you travel, and you should not withdraw small
amounts. The credit card used LKRs2.45 which was the best option.
The Chennai Airport Exchange booth gave a rate which was over 5% less
than Hotels I stayed at, which gave close to Midpoint. Most surprising
was the much lower rate (about 5%) for the AU$ than the US$ when on
the international market it was over 2% higher that day. I am told the
US$ currency notes have a higher demand in India. Authorised Money
Changers also gave a good rate, but not easy to find.
Another surprise is that they don't accept currency notes of an older
series. I had taken a British 20 Pound Note left over from a trip to
UK in 2005. That was declined, and I am told not accepted even in
Lanka except at a Bank.
A Sri Lankan can take out a maximum of LKRs5000 in currency notes
to have some money on return. You need Exchange control permission to
take any circulation coins out of the country, since they cost CBSL
more than face value to mint.
Since I had problems booking a train ticket without an Amex card, I
got myself one before I left for India, in case this was a problem at
Hotels. However I did not need to use the Amex.
All hotels that Accepted credit card payments accepted my Sri Lankan
HSBC Master Card which I had activated for use in India during this
period. It was declined only at a restaurant and a department store. I
forgot to try my Amex at those locations.
At Chennai Airport there was a prepaid taxi stand which took us to our
hotel in an antique Ambassador Car at INRs375
which was reasonable for 15 kms. Taxis I am told charge
about INRs100 start and about
INRs15 per kms.
Booked a Taxi to return to Airport at midnight. The cost
of INRs420 was only slightly higher
because of late night surcharge.
All Indian TukTuks used to have meters. It is a pity the meter is now
defunct and the driver charges whatever he can get away with, like in
Colombo before Meter Taxis became popular. There was a notice on the
back panel, giving a rate of INRs9 per
kms with a INRs15 minimum. But this was
covered by a cloth in most taxis.
Chennai Railway station had a TukTuk stand which seemed to be very
popular. You stated your destination and you were told your fixed
fare before you got into TukTuk next in line.
Renting a car with driver is inexpensive in India. For about US$40 per
day, we got an A/C Indica with 250 kms including the Driver's
Bata. Extra km was just INRs8. In India,
the driver was comfortable about sleeping in car if hotel did not
provide quarters. Fuel is included, but Road Tolls and Pondi Permit
If you don't return to your point of origin you need to add the return
distance to the mileage used and pay for any Tolls. There should be an
online share travel sites from which some other Tourist could use this
Car which would otherwise return empty. Maybe drivers already have
that worked out, to make a quick profit.
Read the meter daily, and compare the usage with distance computed.
If booking for the day workout the distance on a Map and agree on a
fixed amount for trip. I felt the distance was significantly shorter
than they computed. I disagreed and said I will pay by the meter. Bad
decision. The driver some how put and additional 50 kms. I refused to
pay this excess.
When I did an inquiry in Sri Lanka it was 3 times as much per day for
the same distance, and I was told I was responsible for the driver's
meals and accommodation.
Pondicherry which was a French enclave, is now administered
independently within Tamil Nadu state and has it's own taxes. A Pondi
Permit is needed for any Tourist Car and costs
INRs200 to travel on it's road for
a week. We needed to travel extra 16 kms to the main freeway to get
the permit which was checked at many places by Traffic Police. The
road Tolls were additional to this permit.
As soon as we landed in India got SMSs about Roaming on our Lankan
mobile SIMs. Activated Dialog OCOR (One Country One rate) Roaming.
Incoming calls from SriLanka cost only Rs2 per min.
Got an Indian Airtel SIM with almost instant activation, after giving
a photocopy of passport/Visa. Cost only INRs150
with INRs100 credit Calls to Lanka from
this Indian SIM was very expensive. A Dual SIM phone is useful to have
both your Lankan and Indian SIMs.
An Indian SIM however makes you open to a whole range of Phone Marketing
and SPAM SMS messages which became very Annoying. One even
said I had won US$500,000 and to contact someone by E-mail to claim it.
I am glad there is regulations in Lanka to prevent this abuse.
Internet cafes were not difficult to find close to find within short
walking distance of hotels and rates similar to that in
Lanka. INRs10 got you 15
min INRs30 got a hour. They were open
from around 10 AM till about 9 PM. The Internet kept us informed with
detailed news from Lanka.
In Chennai however you need to show ID such as a Passport to use the
Internet. This is a special regulation in Chennai and took me by surprise.
The ID and time of use was recorded in a book. Probably logs the websites you
visit as well.
When I arrived in Bangalore I discovered I had caught a Travel bug in
Trichy. and was in bad shape. A tuktuk ride to the local Hospital, I
was able to see a Doctor for INRs10. He
prescribed 3 drugs for 5 days on medication. He said bottle water does
not imply it is safe to drink. He recommended sticking to well known
Brand Names. When the diarrhea did not improve, a Pharmacist
prescribed something stronger, With no other option I took the magic
pills and was OK in 24 hours, Returning home I discovered that I had
been given a drug used in developed countries as the last resort to
cure worst case Bacterial infections. In India, I guess it is needed
more often. My diarrhea vanished on returning home. I was back to
normal 5 kg lighter. I hope I am able to keep that extra weight off.
Keep away from them. Their only aim is to make some money, giving
a commission to the TukTuk driver who took you to him.
I regret having used a Bharath International Travel Agent in
Bangalore. The guy not only surcharged 25% the tour
tickets, to get a 40% profit, booked a Hotel room in Mysore which
needed to be upgraded and cleaned before we could use it. That hotel
had running hot water for only 2 hours in the morning. The shower was
cold when you needed to wash away the dust from travel. When we
insisted they did get a bucket of hot water, after waiting about an
Guided Indian Tours
Avoid them. Went on an afternoon city tour of Bangalore, and a day
tour to Mysore the next day. This was a bad decision. Often the Guide
spoke Hindi with a nominal use of English. The city tour which was
advertised as from 2PM to 7PM was more like 3PM to 6PM with only about
1.5 hours spent at sites. The tour operator was more interested in
taking us to Shops from which he gets a commission, and some of the
places in the itinerary was a view from the Bus as it drove past. Also
with a divergent group of different interests, lot of time was wasted
waiting for the full group to return to the Bus. The Art Gallery which
was on the itinerary was closed when we reached it. I guess they
couldn't risk keeping the shopping till the end.
At the beginning of the tour, the guide would collect more money as
entrance fees and as he called it his Guide fee. Shouldn't that be a
part of the tour for which we had already paid. A notice printed
inside the Bus stated that these fees were extra.
Anyway there are no Tour buses to mainly Archaeological sites like
Halebidu and Belur. I was told local Tourists are only for religious
or entertainment sites.
As in Sri Lanka, the museums and archaeological sites charge
Foreigners about 5 times as much as Indian citizens, At the Tipu
Sultan Summer Palace in Bangalore we were told that, those from a
SAARC country would be given the Indian rate, if we showed our Lankan
Passports. That was nice and worked. I hope the SAARC countries
including Sri Lanka adopt an uniform standard to improve cultural
exchange within the SAARC nations. However I was told on the next tour
this SAARC consession was not given for the Mysore Palace. Free
entrance to the grounds of the Mysore Palace when that is lit up on
Sunday Nights, and one is allowed to take your camera. During
they day they want you to deposit cameras and mobiles in a locker
One needs to research this online before travel itinerary is
organized. Museums are not easy to find. Find if there is a Museum
and if so the address and days of the week and time they are open. I
did not know there was a Museum at Halebidu till I saw it listed in an
Archaeology Survey book I obtained later. The Museum in Pondicherry
was unfortunately closed on Monday when we were there.
Photography is not allowed in some Museums and inside Shrines being
used for religious activity. In some museums a camera permit at
additional cost is required.
On Site Guides
I declined the many offers for a Tour guide so I can't comment on them.
They claimed to be Licensed etc, the fees were far more than I felt reasonable.
An English guide book I felt was far more economical.
At the Mysore Palace they had recorded tape Guides you could rent.
However to rent one you needed to leave an identification at the
counter, or an extra cash deposit of INRs2000
The SriLankan Airline allowed 30kg per economy class passenger to
Chennai. Most travel to take goods from Sri Lanka and bring back
goods from India. Checking in with less than half the baggage
allowance was a surprise to Airline counter agent in Chennai, who
upgraded our tickets to Business class which was kind of him, although
we really need a dinner at 3 AM.
Even that is too much when travelling by Train or Bus. One must
travel with the bare essentials packed in small cabin size bags. So
we left a bag at the Hotel in Chennai with what we did not need till
Book Shops I did purchased some interesting books on coins
and heritage sites of India at Museums. However even at the two
largest shopping malls in Chennai I was disappointed to not find a
large comprehensive bookshop. An Indian book dealer at the CIBF
confirmed that the shops in Channai no longer carried a good selection
of books, and only stoked books of popular interest from which they
got larger commissions. I would need to go to Kolkata, Delhi, or
There is no direct Airport coach to serve passengers from Colombo.
There is a normal bus service (#187) to Katunayaka from opposite
Colombo Fort Railway station. From Katunaya there is a free shuttle to
the Airport which also brings passengers to and from the Parking
lots. However these buses, serving those who work at the Airport have
no place for large Bags. I tried it once buying an extra seat for my
small Bag. From Mount Lavina to the Airport, a nano cab costs
LKRs2100, and a van costs LKRs2500.
When we landed back home and there was no problems with bags or customs.
The prepaid taxi at the Colombo Airport to Mount Lavinia was LKRs3500.
So we walked away. We were soon getting offers at LKRs3000, and finally
outside the Airport we bargained down to LKRs2500, as we had paid to come
in. The AC car we returned in I suspect was not a taxi, but a driver
making some money via an agent after dropping his master. It was lot
better than the prepaid taxis I had used in past.