Cycling India: Kerala

Continued from: Cycling India: Tamil Nadu

Day 8: How high can Munnar be?!

After the madness of yesterdays intense climbing, I passed out early and slept until 8 am – about 10 hours straight!  Then I had a proper big sit down breakfast for once involving some kind of Indian curry and rice rolled into a tube shape that cost about £1, which is a bit over my budget but I felt like spoiling myself.


The hotel owner explained that the “closed road” I took yesterday IS actually closed, but only just before Munnar! Guess I should have listened to it after all, as now I had to backtrack quite far. With this new information and after examining the incredibly complex route out of Munnar to the coast I decided I would get a bus from there to Kochi, otherwise, it’s going to take days and I was already behind schedule.

Bison Valley

Along the way, I realised that I had accidentally taken the key to my hotel room with me, but by that point, I was way down in the valley and there was no way I was cycling back up. Fortunately, they had my number so after about an hour they called asking about it. I offered to post it back but they told me just to leave it at a local shop and they will collect it – they were very nice and understanding about it.

I continued along some really beautiful roads flanking a river for a few kilometres and then the uphills started again. For some reason, the elevation lines on Google Maps are not accurate because it indicated a lot of downhill to Munnar but it was basically uphill all the way.  I stopped about five times for tea or coffee and about twenty times to take photos of the endless beautiful tea plantations, so by the time I got to Munnar it was already 3 pm.

Bus to Kochi

I briefly considered staying the night but it looked pretty dead except for rich French tourists, so I found a local bus that was willing to strap my bike on the roof and take me to Kochi for Rs200 (about £1.20).  The bus trip was quite nice and comfortable – they don’t have closed windows just holes you can lean out of and get a nice cooling breeze. Unfortunately, it did take about 5 hours so I only got to Kochi at 8 pm.  It also dropped me in the ass-end of nowhere miles from Kochi beach so I had to cycle 12km’s on the dark busy roads to a hostel on the beach.

I was hoping to grab a cold beer since it’s been a week since I’ve drunk anything and I’m taking the day off tomorrow, but the only places still open were super expensive hotel bars (Rs250), so I just had a coffee and called it a night. I’ll get a Rs100 beer from the wine shop tomorrow… and then, starting Wednesday, a mad race to Goa to make it for the weekend!

Cycled: 36km

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Day 9 – Kochi Killed my Laptop

I didn’t do any cycling today just relaxed around Maritime Hostel with some of the other guests and rested my legs. Kochi has an area called Fort Kochi which is popular with tourists for some reason but in reality, there isn’t much to it. It has a quaint village feel to it which is nice but at the same time expensive compared with the rest of India. I briefly walked around exploring with an English guy looking for somewhere with decent wifi but we couldn’t find anything faster than the hostel, which was very slow.

Maritime Hostel

Strangely, on the return to the hostel, my laptop stopped working. No matter what I tried to do it wouldn’t switch on! Eventually, I decided to let it rest for a few days and went out to look for a bottle store to buy beer. Unfortunately, everything was closed due to some or other holiday, so I got some fried chicken instead to drown my sorrows and then headed back to the hostel. I was planning to meet up that evening with an Indian guy I had met on the road the previous day but he must have been busy as he didn’t end up coming, so I just wandered around the docks and beachfront on my own and bought something called a Mud Coffee, which is like a crazy chocolate ice-cream-milkshake-coffee combination thing. It was pretty awesome, to be honest.

Back at the hostel, I got chatting to an Argentinian girl who was born in Germany but now lives in Isreal. She was travelling to South East Asia, where I had recently been, and had just come from Goa, so we chatted for awhile about various travel related things before I headed off to bed.

 

India Day 10: The Kerala Coastline

I headed off about 8 am after the free hostel breakfast and cycled around the bay because the ferry wouldn’t let me take my bike on it – so that added an unnecessary 20 km’s to my trip. Then I followed some very wet and sandy roads along the beachfront for a while in an area they call the backwaters. At one point the road was literally just a beach!

I stopped for a swim around 11 am as it was already boiling hot and I was covered in sweat – it’s definitely more humid on the coast! The beaches around this area are completely deserted and very beautiful, and I can only guess they aren’t more overrun by hotels and tourists because the area must flood a lot during monsoon season.

I stopped after about 70km for lunch of some samosas and fruit for around Rs30 (33p) and then had to catch a short ferry across a river mouth that cost Rs4 (about 5p). The locals on the ferry were very interested in my bicycle and we chatted about my trip. They all found it very odd that someone would travel by bicycle when motorbikes are so cheap, which certainly feels true after 100 km’s on a loaded bike!

I had another swim about 3 pm at a small beach and then headed inland onto the main motorway so I could cover some ground before sunset. I was planning to stop at a town called Ponanni but it turned out to be really tiny and didn’t have any accommodation, so I had to continue on in the dark for two hours! I was hoping to find a quiet dark spot to camp but there were just buildings and people everywhere!  I kept seeing signs for ‘Hotels’ but when I stopped to ask about rooms it turned out they were just restaurants, not hotels. Apparently, in this part of India, a restaurant is called a ‘hotel’!?

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Finally, at about 8:30 pm I reached a town called Tirur, which looked a bit more like it might have an actual hotel, possibly even with rooms! After looking around for a bit I finally found a dirty backstreet motel near the train station with a room for Rs650 (£7). It was a bit more than I’d usually spend but I didn’t have much choice – I had already cycled 141km and I was exhausted!


I had a quick, cheap dinner at a nearby restaurant, then got some snacks and watched a bit of Netflix before crashing out for the night.


India Day 11: Kannur

I left my rubbish hotel room early and cycled north towards Goa. I stopped a few times for food and drink and to catch another ferry but mostly just pushed on through all day to a town called Kannur, which turned out to be surprisingly big and even a bit touristy. Upon arrival, I found the train station and a nearby hotel which actually had two other travellers in it – the first I’d seen since Kochi.

That evening I walked around exploring the town and looking for beer but didn’t find any. I also priced some phones because I desperately need a new one, and almost bought a Samsung J7 for 10,000 rupees but didn’t have cash at the time. I eventually ended up just getting some snacks and watching more Netflix in the hotel room before sleeping early.

(That time is obviously for a car, not bicycle)

 

India Day 12: To Goa

For some reason, I was in a hurry to get to Goa and felt that cycling these roads would just be more of the same for days, so I went to the train station and found a train that was going to the main Goa station within the hour. I checked in my bike to the parcel carriage and then bought a ticket and got some snacks for the journey.

I only had a normal ticket so was expecting to be crushed into the carriage like before, but when I got on there were quite a few seats empty. I sat in one but within a few minutes somebody told me it was their seat, so I moved to another only to be told the same. I realised I must be in the pre-booked seating carriage, so I went and sat in the passageway against a door, trying to be as out-of-the-way as possible. However, within a few minutes, a conductor came and told me I had to move. He looked at my ticket and explained I was in the wrong carriage and either had to walk right to the back of the train to the crush area, or I could pay about Rs200 extra (about £2.30) and get a seat.  I was initially annoyed to have to pay extra but on reflection, it was way better than standing again the crush area again for 6 hours, and I was actually really lucky some seats were empty as usually the trains are fully booked.

As a result, my journey was quite comfortable and for most of the journey I had an entire sleeper bed to myself (They book some of the sleeper beds out as seats so sometimes there are four people to a bed and sometimes it’s completely empty).  I put in my headphones, ate snacks and stared out the window for most of the journey.

Upon arrival in Goa, I collected my bike and headed off on the 10km ride to the only nearby hostel called River’s Edge. On the way, I saw a bottle store so stopped and bought two big 650ml beers for an amazing Rs150 (less than £2). The hostel was amazing, more like a fancy hotel – with swimming pool and all –  and not even expensive at only Rs600 a night.  The only problem is that it’s far from the main area of Goa, so the next day I would head to the coast.

I sat by the pool and enjoyed my first beer in about 2 weeks, reminiscing on the trip and looking forward to some relaxing time in Goa…

 

Budget Travel Tips

money

I have two facets to travelling cheap – “Saving while Working” and “Saving while Travelling”, but both revolve around similar core-concepts.  Depending on your income level and/or the way in which you like to travel, each may apply to you in a different way.


SAVING WHILE WORKING

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Everyone is always asking how I travel so much. Sadly I have no big secret – I didn’t win the lottery, I’m not a trust-fund kid, I don’t have anybody paying for me. I simply follow one rule – earn high, spend low. Seems like an obvious statement, but very few people follow the second step. I spend as little as possible on rent by sharing rooms, staying in super cheap student housing or crashing on friends sofas. Of course, this would not suit everybody but hey – if you wanna travel the world and you’re not a millionaire you’re going to have to make some sacrifices!


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I also eat a lot of rice, frozen veg, spaghetti, tin tomatoes etc, always buy reduced price food, almost never drink out at bars or pubs and never eat at restaurants. I cycle EVERYWHERE. This is probably my biggest saving – I save over £2000 a year simply by refusing to ever pay for public transport or taxis, even if it’s 3 am and it’s raining. Like I said – sacrifices. There are various other ways, like taking a packed lunch to work and drinking the free work coffee instead of the exorbitantly over-priced coffee shops (I mean seriously, £3 for a coffee? Are you crazy?).  I also almost never buy clothes unless it’s an absolute necessity, and even then we’re talking £3 t-shirts or £10 jeans, usually at second-hand stores.  In fact, almost everything I buy is second-hand – shpock and facebook marketplace are my saviours. I never sign up to anything – I’ve never had a phone contract, I don’t have Spotify, Netflix, Sky, a gym membership – I’ve never even had a single direct-debit on my bank account. In short, when working and saving I live like someone on minimum wage or less, but that’s fine because the other 6 months of the year I can travel the world which makes it all worthwhile.  Which takes us to step two…


SAVING WHILE TRAVELLING

Accommodation

Budget Hotel in Hollywood

Hostels and Hotels

Do you like fancy hotels, private rooms, hot water, air-con? This might not be the blog for you. Once again, travelling cheap means sacrifices – you know that little option at the top of hotel search apps that says “Sort by Price – Low to High”? Yeah, I use that a lot. Hostels are your best friend if you’re travelling alone, but in many places, it’s also possible to find private rooms for almost the same price. For example, I recently found a really nice private room in Sri Lanka for £5 a night! Okay sure, the bathroom was shared but this is hardly a big problem. If you’re travelling as a couple you can often get a private room for the same price as two hostel beds. My favourite apps are Hostel World and Trivago. (Booking.com is very popular but they sometimes have hidden costs not included in the quoted price and their customer service is terrible so I would avoid them.)

Waters Edge, Goa

Staying with Locals

Sites like Couchsurfing and WarmShowers are also great for meeting and staying with local residents, and getting the chance to experience a country like locals do. The Couchsurfing app tries to convince you to pay and verify your account but you can use it fine without being verified.

Rough Sleeping

Depending on how brave you are and what country you are in, you can often find places to sleep for free if you really want to save money! These can be anything from hammocks or sunbeds on the beach, to abandoned buildings or construction sites. But again, this depends massively on the safety of where you are – I had no problems doing this in most of South East Asia (especially Cambodia), but it’s probably less recommended in most African and South American countries (although according to my favourite blog “hitchtheworld.com” it would seem South America is fine too).

In most of Europe or the US you’ll likely be asked to move by law enforcement, although a friend and I managed to sleep quite comfortably on the beach in Cannes, and behind a few shops and truck stops in parts of Italy. The smaller the town the better luck you will have. I generally try to avoid cities in all circumstances because they are noisy, polluted and over-priced – and visit them only for work or the airports.

Sleeping in a train station

FOOD AND DRINK

Everyone has heard of tourist traps, but what most people don’t realise is that practically anywhere you go is a tourist trap – if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have heard of it! Restaurants and bars around the town centre of your new destination might seem cheap at first, but if you venture off the main strip into the local areas you’ll be surprised to find amazing authentic places for half the price, and get the rare opportunity to meet some local people in their own environment – not just trying to sell you sunglasses on the beach!  Street food is generally the cheapest way to eat anywhere – in Sri Lanka, you can get great little snacks like roti’s and samosa’s for between 10 – 25p.  In Vietnam, Bahn Mi (baguette sandwich) is available everywhere from between 70-90p, and even sit down restaurants serve huge bowls of Pho for only £1. Thailand is synonymous with street food – for less than £1 you can get a huge array of food including spring rolls, fried chicken, fish, fruit – you name it! maxresdefault

European and American towns have less street food options, so when in expensive places like Paris, I buy bread, cheese and fruit at shops or markets to save money. Many hostels will have communal kitchens so if you are with friends you could save even more by buying ingredients and cooking together. Always buy products local to the country you are in, so don’t try to make pasta in Thailand – rice and a curry with seasonal vegetables will be much cheaper!


Alcohol is usually a big expense for most people, especially when travelling – present company not excluded!  I won’t lie – I really like my beer, and if I’m honest sometimes alcohol makes up 50% of my travel costs! That seems crazy when I see it in writing, but there is no point travelling so cheap that you don’t even enjoy yourself, and of course when money is really tight then it’s the first thing I cut out. Fortunately, in a lot of countries, I have found they will let you bring some store bought alcohol into cheap restaurants, or even bars, as they assume once you are done with that you will buy more.Just don’t be a dick and bring a few bottles of whiskey in!

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The average price of a can of supermarket beer is approximately £1 in almost every country I’ve ever been, with a few exceptions like Vietnam where it can be as low as 30p, and of course, Islamic countries where it is usually illegal or if not, exceptionally expensive.

Drinking before going out and avoiding rip-off touristy bars are the most obvious ways to keep this expense low.


TRANSPORT

Transport is a big one when travelling, and usually, it all starts with flights. Most people are quick to use flight aggregation sites like Skyscanner, Cheapflights and Google Flights, which are great – but just for the info! In most cases, it’s best to use these sites to find the cheapest routes, but then often cheaper to book through the airline independently. Also, these sites will quote you the cheapest fare covering your route in the fastest time with the shortest layover, but often you can save money by purchasing two separate flights on the same path and also spend some time in a new country. For example, I recently searched for a flight from London to Dubai, and the cheapest route was on Pegasus airlines via Istanbul. So I searched on the Pegasus website for individual flights from London to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Dubai a few days later and managed to get a cheaper overall price – plus I got myself an unexpected short holiday in Turkey! Of course, this only works if you’re not on a tight schedule, but I highly recommend always not being on a tight schedule.

Sleeper bus in Malaysia

Once in your country of choice, you’ll likely want to be moving around frequently. Almost every country in the world has a vast spectrum of transport choices, and my favourite is always trains! Train travel is usually the most affordable, fastest and comfortable way to travel (except in the UK). However, western ideals of comfort have created in most countries ridiculous price differences in travel classes, with many railway services offering “1st class” tickets at ten times the price of normal tickets, but offering very little value for money. Seriously, air-con is not that important – even 3rd class carriages have fans, which are more than enough. I’ve travelled 12-hour journeys in 3rd class in humid 40-degree Celsius countries and I’ve survived! Honestly, you’ll be fine. (And if not, most 3rd world countries sell Xanax without prescription for next to nothing.)

Tuk-tuk

Buses are the next best thing for cheap public transport, and usually cover all the routes that trains don’t.  In some countries, I’ve found long-distance overnight bus travel to be very cheap, especially around South East Asia. There is a safety aspect and it’s recommended not to leave any valuables in the luggage hold, not to mention the occasional road accident, so take due care in certain countries when choosing to travel by bus. Personally, I’ve never had a problem, but I’ve heard enough stories of people who have.


Most Asian countries have tuk-tuks which are like small motor-bike taxis with seating for up to 3 people. These are great ways to go small distances but usually cost more than buses and are notorious for ripping off unsuspecting foreigners, so find out first what it should cost for where you are going and ensure to agree on a price before getting in! They also make walking on the streets a highly annoying task as they continuously stop to offer you a lift!

Hitch hiking in Laos

Which brings us to hitch-hiking. Now hitch-hiking is a very sensitive topic with a lot of people, and no doubt for good reason. The biggest issue being gender-related – obviously, for women, there is a massively inherent danger when getting into a car with a stranger. That said, I have met and spoken to a large number of female solo hitch-hikers who have never had any issues in certain areas, mostly south-east Asia. Hitchwiki is a great website run by a worldwide community of hitch-hikers, giving a huge amount of detailed information on where to avoid, where to stand, places to crash, busy routes, quiet routes etc. I haven’t hitch-hiked a huge amount but I’ve had great success in Thailand and Laos – poorer countries are generally better and I’ve found those less well-off are often the quickest to stop and offer a lift.


ALSO – walking and cycling are free and I highly suggest you do them as often as possible. Even 5km is not really that far (if you aren’t on a tight schedule) and you may see and experience things you would have missed out on if you were in a bus.

CASH

No matter how much money you save, if you don’t have access to your money it’s of no use! I encounter an endless stream of people who lose their wallet or bag with their only debit card in it in a foreign country and have no idea how to get a replacement card while abroad – something that is generally very difficult! Before going on a long trip always ask your bank for a second card that you can keep safely back in your hotel or hostel when you go out. If you have a credit card keep it for emergencies only and don’t carry it out with you. In fact, it’s best to only ever take out the cash you need for that day or night and leave everything else back at your accommodation.

In a lot of countries drawing cash from ATM’s incur a big charge (like in Thailand it’s £5, plus whatever percentage your bank charges) so you’ll want to draw a lot of cash at once and keep this in a safe place at your accommodation. Always check that you can draw cash in the country you are visiting and if not bring enough foreign currency for your entire trip. If possible it’s good to have a mix of cards, ie Visa and Mastercard, as some ATM’s only take one or the other.


There is always an inherent danger of money getting stolen from your account if your debit card is lost or stolen, so I always keep the majority of my cash in my separate savings account and then move money using my Barclays app on my phone when I need to draw cash. This way if somebody does get my card they will only have access to about £30. A potential problem with this is losing or breaking your phone and not having access to the app, so it’s also good to carry the pin-sentry console with you if your bank has one.


BAGGAGE

Travel light! I cannot stress this enough. No matter how long your trip, you never need more than a week’s worth of clothes. I only ever travel with one backpack that fits into carry-on luggage and weighs between 10-12kg, and this is advantageous for many reasons – no excess baggage charges, the airline can’t lose it, you don’t have to wait at the baggage carousel and it’s small and light enough to walk long distances with when hitch-hiking or even just trying to find a hotel or hostel. With a small bag, there is also much more chance a bar will be happy to stash it for you overnight while you crash on a hammock or sunbed. Furthermore, you will be able to take it onto buses with you so no worries of theft from the luggage compartment or forgetting something in your bag that you may need on-board. Basically, you’ll be lighter, happier and always have whatever you need at hand. The only exception to this is when travelling in very cold countries where excessive warm clothing is required and so a big bag is unavoidable.

My essential luggage items are:
Basic clothing (4 shirts, 3 shorts, some socks, trainers, flip flops and maybe a warm hoodie or jersey)
Phone charger and power bank
Basic toiletries (toothpaste, brush, deodorant) and basic medical (some plasters and antiseptic cream)
Glasses and sunglasses
TRAVEL ADAPTOR!
Passport
Padlock

(I realise girls with hair might need luxury items like shampoo and stuff so I can accept they may not be able to travel as light as me, but most hostels and hotels have soap and sometimes even shampoo. Or just make friends with somebody who does!)

Beyond the essentials, I also carry a tiny laptop (to write this), a hammock, a unicorn mask, a GoPro, an electric razor, nail-clippers, a portable speaker and some other non-essential items because just like everybody I also tend to pack way more than I actually need.

 

Cycling India: Tamil Nadu

Okay so I’m guessing it’s because I was flying Spice Jet from Sri Lanka, but for some reason, I landed at the domestic arrivals hall of Chennai airport, which I’ve discovered since is far more basic than the international terminal – so basic in fact that it has no ATM’s whatsoever! It’s literally just a tiny building with three customs gates and two baggage carousels.

I never organize local currency before travelling somewhere new because it is almost always cheaper to just draw from an ATM on arrival, so this was a significant problem. I didn’t have a single cent for a bus, train or anything. I managed to explain my plight to a nice parking attendant who told me there was an ATM about 2km’s away and showed me on Google Maps.

He must have felt sorry for me because a few minutes after walking off he came up behind me on his motorbike and offered me a lift, which was a godsend as I soon found out there is NO WAY I would have found the ATM and also walking on the streets doesn’t seem particularly safe, especially at 4 am when you are sick and haven’t slept. Chennai is pretty chaotic.


The airport also didn’t have wifi or a sim card shop, so I couldn’t transfer any more money to my current account but luckily managed to draw about 2000 rupees (about £20) – more than enough for the 25 rupee bus to a hostel that the nice attendant found for me on his phone.


By the time I got to the hostel Red Lollipop (highly recommended), it was about 7 am and I couldn’t check in yet but they told me where I could get some food and let me nap on a chair until 9:30 am when a bed became free. I slept until about 2 pm and then headed out to a nearby Decathlon store to buy a bike, as my plan is to bike tour India.

Red Lollipop Kitchen
Red Lollipop Kitchen

The selection was significantly more limited than in Europe so I ended up getting a kind of road/tour hybrid version of the B-Twin Triban, which aren’t exactly the best bikes but only cost £300 and would do the job for now. I might have to upgrade some parts but the frame seems solid and I’m carrying minimal weight.

I also bought a handlebar bag, lock, bottle with cage, pannier rack, hand pump and lights. Annoyingly they didn’t have spare tubes or puncture-resistant tyres, so I might have to do old-school roadside puncture patching until I can get some.

The bike
The bike

When I got back to the hostel I managed to convince the nice receptionist to let me keep the bike inside, and then he told me about a secret place called Trouser Kadai that serves the best local food. He wasn’t joking about secret – it has no name or sign outside and you wouldn’t know it was there if somebody didn’t show you. They seemed very surprised and honoured to have a westerner in their establishment and went to great length explaining to me the different dishes and how they are made. I had two servings of Idli with curry and a masala dosa all for only 40 rupees (less than 50p), served on a banana leaf and eaten by hand, of course.

Trouser Kadai
Trouser Kadai

After that, I just chilled at Red Lollipop watching movies in their awesome TV room and chatting with the other guests, from whom I picked up some very useful info from about Auroville and other places to go in Pondicherry.


DAY 2: Mahabalipurum

On day 2 it was time to set off properly!  I awoke early, still coughing a bit, grabbed some coffee and biscuits, packed my bike and started cycling south. After about an hour I arrived at another Decathlon store where the guy yesterday said I could get pannier bags for Rs699 (about £8).


Just after packing the bags and getting ready to leave I noticed my back tyre was flat! A quick inspection revealed it was a bit damaged around the valve and had a slow leak. Annoyingly they didn’t have any replacement tubes in the correct size, so I had to patch it. I think Decathlon is quite new in India because their stock is very limited. At least they gave me the patch for free.

On route
On route

The patch worked well because I didn’t have any problems for the next 40km to Mahabalipuram. The roads, once you are out of the city, are actually quite nice and not too busy, plus quite well paved and even.  I only stopped once briefly for an excellent 30 rupee coffee and had a chat with a nice old Indian guy about my bike and South African cricket.

I arrived in Mahabalipuram in the early afternoon and stopped for more coffee and some Aloo Tiki, which are like potato cakes (£1.50). Afterwards, I decided to try push on through to Pondicherry which means I must have been delirious from the heat because it was almost 100km’s away!

Luckily trusty old Google Maps directed me straight into a nuclear power plant (in fact, the Indra Ghandi Atomic Research plant), and so I had to back track about 10km to Mahabalipuram and then smartly decided to stop there for the night.


This turned out to be a great idea because Mahabalipuram is awesome! It’s a tiny little village with these mad rock formations and old temples, including one called Krishna’s Butterball which is just a big round rock that somehow is balanced on a slope. Magic!  Check out some pics in the slideshow below:

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I found a cheap motel called Full Moon that gave me a private room with en-suite for Rs500 (£5.50), parked my bike inside, had a shower and headed out to explore.  While exploring the ruins I got chatting to an Indian guy who told me about the history of one ruin that looks like an elephant with a temple built into it’s rib cage, with the pillars making up the ribs.

 

My room at Full Moon
My room at Full Moon

I felt amazed that this place existed and yet I had never even heard of it, and it made me wonder what else is out there?  These days you tend to assume the entire world is discovered and there is nothing new to see, and yet sometimes we can fall upon a treasure like this akin to how ancient explorers did in the past.

 

After that, I went down to the beach which sadly wasn’t very impressive and then walked around the village, which really comes alive at night with lots of bars and restaurants. I was still feeling quite sick so instead of beer I just had some 60p vegetable soup, bought some snacks and headed off to bed. Big bags of Lays in India are only 30p – awesome!

India Day 3: Auroville

My sickness got particularly bad last night for some reason and I was worried putting on the fan would make it worse, but then I kept getting annoyed by mosquito’s so I had to put it on. In the end, I eventually fell asleep but I only got about 4 hours.

I had some coffee and a toasted sandwich and then headed off at about 8am. Unfortunately after Mahabalipuram the road isn’t as good as the stretch from Chennai. Due to the power station blocking off the coastal road you have to take the highway which doesn’t have a proper tarred shoulder – it’s made from bricks more like a sidewalk which makes it difficult to cycle on.

As a result, you need to cycle on the road and continuously move off and on the bricks when a vehicle comes. Fortunately, the traffic is quiet for the most part until you get closer to Pondicherry, which is also when the shoulder becomes tar again.


I cycled almost non-stop for the first 50km’s and then stopped at a CoffeeBreak, which are these very westernised road side cafe’s with over-priced sandwiches and coffee for tourists, but I hadn’t seen anything else for ages and I was starving.

I had a fairly decent veg burger for Rs110 (£1.20) while watching an old French guy pretend to dance to Hindi music, and then continued on. A few kilometres later I reached a small village with lots of cheap local food, so I should have waited! I stopped and had some excellent Rs10 (12p) coffee and four bananas that a kind girl gave me for free.

 

That night, because Pondi was full, I had booked into a hostel in Auroville, which is this kind of hippie commune that was started decades ago as a social experiment, I think? I’m not quite sure. Anyway, it’s quite nice and peaceful, if a little bit run-down and rustic.

It’s got lost of dirt tracks through the forest which was fun to cycle on and lots of interesting areas and pavilions based around different countries and cultures. It’s very multi-cultural although bizarrely also has a strict membership policy for a lot of things so at times can feel a bit unwelcoming.

The hostel I was staying at called Blue Lotus appeared to be run or managed by a Spanish guy who really enjoyed doing handstands, but did not enjoy checking for online bookings. As result, it was full because he had given my bed away to a walk-in. (To be honest, this happens quite often in small towns, especially with cheaper hostels that have a very relaxed attitude, so in some cases, it’s best not to try book ahead).

Fortunately, he made room for me by moving the office around and putting a bed in there which meant I kind of had my own room, only it didn’t have any curtains or windows that closed properly so I had trouble sleeping until everyone outside had gone to bed and put the lights out. It was okay in the end I still got 7 hours sleep.

India Day 4: Pondicherry

On my way to Pondicherry, after some morning yoga and free breakfast, I was stopped by a French resident of Auroville who told me about ‘the best cycle cafe in India’ which just happens to be in Auroville. I don’t know if it’s the best but it is pretty cool so if you’re ever in Auroville check it out.

I had a coffee and chatted with the owner for awhile about touring and various bike stuff and mentioned I might want to camp. He happened to have a second-hand tent available which was very convenient since nowhere in India sells tents, although also kind of inconvenient as I found out later it’s not really possible to camp anywhere in India!

Auroville Bike shop
Auroville Bike shop

Anyway I bought the tent and then continued on to Pondi down a convenient side road he told me about that was quiet and got me there quicker. I had some serious trouble finding the hostel I was booked into because Google Maps was completely wrong but eventually someone helped me by phoning the number.

I checked in and then went to get a simcard, which requires your passport and a passport photo – India has a lot of strict rules compared with most places I’ve been and they are obsessed with seeing your passport at any opportunity – they must have real problems with illegal immigrants.

The simcard with data package was Rs520 (about £6) and was supposed to include 1GB data a day for 70 days, but as I found out later it never activated and since Airtel has no customer service I had no choice but to top up again for £5. Annoyingly it takes 24 hours to activate so if you do get a simcard make sure you stay in the same place you got it so 24 hours later you can go back to the shop if it doesn’t activate. I was already miles away 24 hours later.

I cycled around Pondicherry a bit seeing the sites, got some Rs20 samosas for dinner, bought a yoga mat for sleeping and then just chilled in the hostel writing various blog updates and drinking the free tea until about midnight.

Cycled: 10km

Hostel Olivia… lacking furniture 😀

India Day 5: Villapuram and Trichy

Despite waking up early I took a long time getting ready because I was obsessed with making a stupid rope attachment work for putting my tent on the bike.  I had come up with the idea in my head the night before of putting it on the handlebars to distribute the weight better and I was convinced it was a genius idea. I did make it work in the end but it’s far from genius.

Then around 11am I cycled off to Villapuram, getting some bananas along the way and arriving there about 2pm after a very slow 30km. The route is not particularly interesting and being a main route into Pondi it was very busy and quite annoying.

The plan was to get a train or bus from Villapuram to Kochi on the west coast, but things didn’t work out that easily. In Villapuram I was told there is no bus and was directed to the train station. At the train station, I was told there is no direct train, I must go to Trichy (Tiruchichivalli) and change there.

Villapauram
Villapauram

I also had to put my bike on a separate postal train for delivery and it would arrive later than me. I wasn’t totally comfortable with this but did it anyway as the road and scenery around here aren’t great and I wanted to save time getting to the west coast.

The train to Trichy was quite an experience, having to literally squeeze in like sardines for 3 hours while people constantly push past to go to the toilet. Not too much unlike most trains just exceptionally busier! By the time I got to Trichy it was already 7pm and my bike arrived at 9pm so I wasn’t going anywhere that night. I managed to find a very cheap hotel room (Rs350) which was really just some cardboard walls in a garage with a folding single bed, but it would do fine for the night.

 

I used the free wifi at the train station for a bit and got some spicy dosa for dinner at a really dodgy looking restaurant next door, then crashed out early with the fan going on full blast to keep out the mosquito’s.

India Day 6: Trichy to Theni

Today was an excellent day. I started off very early, about 6:45am and headed south to Dindigul, my goal for the day. On the way, I had a quick roadside cake and coffee for breakfast but otherwise road non-stop for 50km.

All along the way were pilgrims dressed in some traditional clothing walking along the roadside. I said hello to almost all of them as I went, wanting to know what it was about but unwilling to stop long enough to ask.

Eventually, a guy on a scooter stopped me just when I was getting very tired and hungry and asked me the usual questions – ‘Where you from?’ ‘Where you going?’ etc. As we were chatting one of the pilgrims invited me to join them for food, so I happily obliged.

He sat me down with the others and gave me the traditional banana leaf to eat off and then served me up huge portions of Idly and this porridge they eat that is similar to congee.

After eating one of the pilgrims told me about the walk, that it was a 5 day pilgrimage to the Murugan Temple in Palani. We chatted a bit more about my cycle and then I thanked them both and headed off again. I was well rested and energized so I powered through to Dindigul non-stop and arrived by 2pm.

Now I had already done my 100km for the day and it was only 2pm, so after another short rest and getting my simcard data sorted out I hit the road again for another quite difficult 60km’s to Vaigai dam where I was hoping to camp for the night.

I stopped only once for some awesome chilli bhaji’s and an orange soda, and a nice guy on a motorbike road along with me for 10km’s chatting and then bought me some tea.

In the end, I wasn’t allowed to camp at Vaigai dam and couldn’t find anywhere else, plus it was getting dark so I continued to Theni and found a cheap Rs500 hotel room.  I checked in and then had some tea with the security guard who was playing crazy loud music on this huge speaker system.  I think it’s some kind of festival this weekend.  Luckily the music went off about midnight, but started up again at 5am!

Cycled: 178km

Day 7: Uphill to Kerala!

I was awoken at 5am by the crazy music at my hotel so I figured I may as well get ready and head off early.  By 7am I was on the road and stopped only for some cakes and coffee for breakfast.  It’s great how many little food and coffee stores there are along the roads here – perfect for cycling!

In fact, I’m surprised India isn’t more well known as a cycle destination because it’s really built for it – excellent roads, very affordable and lots of facilities along the way.  The only problem I’ve had so far is the lack of camping but I guess this is just not the place for it, and since accommodation is so cheap it’s not a huge problem.  I do feel a bit silly lugging around a 2kg tent for no reason though.


Today I had to cycle up to Munnar, a hill town up in the Western Ghats which is the mountain range that provides the border between the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  I reached the foot of the mountains in about an hour and started the ascent.  I should have refilled my second water bottle but I was sure there would be something on the way.

Well there wasn’t – I climbed continuously for about 3 hours and just before the top, just as I had run out of water and food, I was saved by an awesome guy on a coffee plantation.  He runs a little shop on the side of the road selling snacks and water, as well as the best coffee I’ve ever had that he makes himself from his coffee beans.  He even gave me some beans and told me how I can make my own.

 

I rested for an hour and had three cups of his coffee while chatting to him, bought two more bottles of water and about ten cakes and biscuits and then attempted the last few hundred metres to the top.

Best coffee in India
Best coffee in India

There is an awesome campsite at the top which on reflection I should have stopped at, but it was only 2pm and I felt like I still could make it to Munnar, since it appeared mostly downhill on Google Maps.

Unfortunately on the first bit of the descent, I was chased by two crazy dogs which I had to cycle like mad to get away from, and as a result, I missed the Munnar turn off.  After I realised this I didn’t want to go back and face the dogs again so I found another route, but somehow I missed that turn off too because all the beautiful tea distracted me!  I should probably get a GPS.


By now it was about 3 pm and I was exhausted and way off track.  I found a road that would get me to what looked like a nice lake before dark where I could maybe camp, but the road was closed.

Anyway, I ignored the sign and cycled down the road anyway, which was good because it turned out there wasn’t any good reason for it being closed.  However, as usual, I couldn’t camp at the lake and was told to continue on 5km to a lodge – this doesn’t sound a lot but it was all uphill and by this point, I could barely walk let alone cycle.


Along the way I came across an Indian wedding and a guy outside invited me to join them for dinner.  I was worried as it was already almost dark but I hoped maybe someone in the wedding could help me with a place to sleep.  They kept serving me up loads of rice with curry and sambal until I eventually I had to politely decline.

Hindu Wedding
Hindu Wedding

It was really good though and fully re-energized my dampened spirit.  Unfortunately after eating I couldn’t find my new friend and nobody else spoke much English, so I gave in and pushed the bike uphill for a few more kilometres until I finally came across a small hotel.

Fortunately, they had cheap dorm room beds for Rs350 (£4) so I said I’ll take one.  Even more, fortunately, the dorm room electricity didn’t work so they put me in an empty private room for the same cost – bonus!

Cycled: 75km

 

Outstanding Beauty in Central Sri Lanka

While the beaches and coastline are undeniably incredible, Sri Lanka also has a huge amount to offer inland – from the famous Sigiriya Rock to a multitude of national parks. Being from Africa and growing up around similar animals I wasn’t particularly interested in the wildlife parks, but my friend Anna and I did spend a week exploring Ella, Kandy and Sigiriya.


Ella Rock
Ella Rock

Getting Inland

We travelled to Ella from Hikkaduwa via a train, bus and tuk-tuk, starting with the 20 rupees (10p) train from Hikkaduwa to Matara, which is the end of the line. From there we took a short tuk-tuk to the bus station, but if you really want to save it’s a walkable 1km. There is no direct bus to Ella but we quickly found a bus to nearby Waliwaya for 120 rupees (60p) and soon we were off on a crazy 5-hour bus ride through winding mountain roads. Buses in Sri Lanka are not for the faint-hearted, but despite the speed and traffic, I think the drivers know what they’re doing and it’s relatively safe.


View from Ella Rock
View from Ella Rock

At Weliwaya we had the option to wait an hour for another cheap bus that then takes a further 2.5 hours to Ella, but instead opted for a much faster 2000 rupee (£10) tuk-tuk as we had had enough of buses for the day. If you really want to save money you could do the entire trip for about £1.


Ella

Ella is a small but surprisingly beautiful mountain village that’s very popular with travellers. Despite being very small it has quite a few bars, coffee shops and western restaurants. It has many cheap guesthouses and few hostels, including the centrally-located Hangover Hostel, and Tomorrowland – which is a bit out of town but is a popular party hostel with an alternative hippy/trance vibe to it and some communal mattresses to crash on if you stay too late.


Walking the tracks
Walking the tracks

On our first day, we headed off on a walk along the train tracks to Ella Rock. This I can’t recommend highly enough! The trains only run very seldom so it’s fairly safe and if one did come we knew we would hear it with more than enough time to avoid it.  With each corner that we took, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the stunning Ella Valley. After crossing a rickety iron bridge, we eventually reached a big Boa tree and a small tea hut where we had been instructed to take a left turn off the tracks and follow a small path to a beautiful waterfall.

After the waterfall, there is an option to continue up to Ella Rock viewpoint, but we were told not to accept an offer of a guide from one of the locals, or they will try stiff you for 1000 rupees at the end of it!  Sure enough, a local emerged from the forest and offered to show us the way.  When I said I had no money, he quickly disappeared again.  We didn’t go all the way to the top but managed to find a nice place to relax and watch the steam train chugging along across the valley.


26229469_10159958891990220_8884308501645148706_nNine Arches Bridge

After that we went back to the station and caught the 3:15 pm train to Demodera which crosses the famous Nine Arches Bridge – I would suggest doing this rather than going to the bridge on foot as most people do (or possibly do both if you have time). It’s a really beautiful bridge with great photo opportunities and it gives that extra special feeling to be on the train. On the way back we stopped at a really cool bar called One Love and had a few beers with a nice couple from India and Switzerland, while listening to psy-trance and building a small bonfire.


Kandy

Kandy was up next and I would suggest going there just for the beautiful train ride alone because Kandy itself is actually a big, noisy city and neither of us enjoyed it much. The train is only about 100 rupees and takes about 5 hours but is a never-ending stream of beautiful mountainous scenery the entire way. We spent a night in Kandy and had a fairly nice time at the Victoria hotel bar chatting to a group of Danish travellers, but from my impression, Kandy is mostly over-priced and there is very little to see or do. We decided to skip the popular botanical gardens, which is fortunate because a friend of mine said it’s not really worthwhile.


Dambulla

We headed north to Dambulla first thing in the morning on a local bus that was a few rupees and took about two hours. It’s also quite a nice drive except for the incessant hooting, so when travelling by bus always bring some in-ear headphones to block it out with music.

At the pool
Anna by the pool at Rangiri Dambulla Resort

Anna had decided she wanted to splash out on a fancy place with a pool for one night, so we stayed in Rangiri Dambulla Resort which is just outside of town and close to the Dambulla Cave Temple. It has some proper glamping tent accomodation with air-con and satellite TV, but unfortunately doesn’t have an alcohol licence. Luckily they can organise delivery from the town wine store at a decent price.

Rangiri tent
Rangiri Dambulla Resort ‘glamping’ tents

That evening we went to the cave temple, which turned out to be 1500 rupee entrance! Between us, we didn’t even have enough for one person but luckily they took pity on us and let us both in anyway. I’m glad because if I’m honest I don’t think it’s worth that much – if you’ve never been to a buddhist cave temple before it might be interesting, but the one’s I saw in Thailand and Vietnam are a bit better and cheaper. Afterwards, a nice Dutch guy who had rented a tuk-tuk gave us a free lift to town so we could draw more cash, and then we grabbed dinner at a place in Dambulla called Mango which does great fried chicken!

Sigiriya

Sigiriya was our next port of call and is home to arguably Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attraction, the ancient Sigiriya Rock fortress, which dates back thousands of years. It’s very impressive but for $25 entrance and a huge queue of people to climb up it, we decided against going in. Fortunately, there is a much cheaper rock nearby called Pidurangala which has just as good views and is only 500 rupees, but is fairly difficult to climb – the last bit requires a certain amount of fitness and bouldering skills!

View of Sigiriya

We hired bicycles the next day for 300 rupees (£1.50) and cycled into the wilderness around Sigiriya, along beautiful dirt roads and pathways that winded off in various directions and got smaller and smaller until they were just single tracks going through thick jungle with no people or buildings in sight. We eventually reached a stunning lake with a view of Sigiriya and Pidurangala rocks in the distance, reflecting off the still water with an eerie dead tree in the middle populated by white long-necked storks. On the way back we were stopped by three local girls, the youngest of which offered Anna a small bouquet of flowers she had picked from the surrounding nature. 26804600_10159966079535220_4402602553823377998_n

We almost felt bad accepting them with nothing to offer in return, but I think they had picked them especially for us as a gift because they had seen us come past and knew we would have to return that way. We finished off the day relaxing by the pool at our accommodation, Flower Garden Eco Village, and drinking our own cocktail invention the “Pinacolanka” – local coconut rum (Arrack) with fresh pineapple juice.


If you are visiting Sri Lanka I highly suggest not missing out on Ella and Sigiriya – they were definitely in my top 3 favourite things of the country, and even if you only have a week you’ll have enough time to see them and get a bit of beach time. From Colombo, there are buses direct to Sigiriya and trains to Kandy, where you can change and go to Ella by train or Sigiriya by bus.

Read more on Sri Lanka:  Sri Lankan South Coast

 

Sri Lankan South Coast – Surfing and Sunsets

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is GMT+5:30 and uses the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). £1 = approx 200 LKR

Arrival in Sri Lanka

When exiting Colombo airport there are loads of taxi’s hanging around outside offering lifts to Colombo city centre for 3000 rupees (about £15), but you can get the bus from just across the road for about 100 rupees (50p).

The bus drops you a short walk from Colombo Fort station where you can get trains to pretty much anywhere in Sri Lanka, except parts of the north and east coast. I bought a ticket to Weligama for about 70p and then found a little shop nearby selling sim cards with 8GB of data for 699 rupees (about £3).


Weligama

In Weligama, I dropped off my bags and went to meet my friend Mike. We had a few beers and then made plans to go meet his friends in Unawatuna, about a half hour tuk-tuk ride away. Stupidly I was a bit drunk and gave the tuk-tuk driver two 5000 rupee notes instead of 500’s. Rookie mistake! Always take some time to get to know the notes when travelling to a new country. That was a £40 waste that I could ill-afford.

Sri Lankan sunset
Sri Lankan sunset

That night we partied on Unawatuna beach with Mike’s friends and then headed back to Weligama in the morning, ensuring we paid the correct amount this time. At my hostel, we got chatting with a fun group of people from all over the world, including Germany, the US and Iraq.  A bottle of whiskey appeared and a few drinks later we were all quite drunk and decided to go surfing.  We rented boards from Surf Mania on Weligama beach for 250 rupees an hour (£1.25).  Needless to say, I didn’t catch many waves.

Surfing Sri Lankan Style
Surfing Sri Lankan Style

Solo Christmas Party – Sri Lankan Style

That evening I moved to a new place nearby called The Classic that had private rooms for only 1000 rupees (£5).  Everyone had gone to sleep by then so I headed out on my own to find a Christmas party on the beach. I could hear music and see lights from miles down the beach so I walked for about half an hour amongst fishing boats, tripping over ropes until I finally reached what turned out to be just a few Sri Lankan guys dancing to very loud, cheesy rave. Turns out this is standard at any party around here. At least they had a tiny make-shift bar so, I grabbed a few beers and ended up having a great time practising break-dancing with them until about 1 am.

Sri Lankan Yoga


Sri Lankan sunset
Sri Lankan sunset

Read more of Sri Lanka here: Outstanding Beauty in Central Sri Lanka

Need somewhere cheap to stay? – Stay : Sri Lanka

 

Sri Lankan street parade
Sri Lankan street parade

After checking into our rooms at Space Garden Hostel, we were surprised by an awesome Sri Lankan street parade passing by! They had lots of dancers, musicians and even elephants (although the elephants didn’t look too happy). Unfortunately, at the end of it a fight broke out and a guy got smashed in the head with a bottle which was a bit of a downer.

Space Garden Hostel
Space Garden Hostel

The day before New Year’s Eve we bumped into an Austrian stuntwoman who had just arrived and we all decided to head down to the beach, where we spent the day chilling in hammocks under palms trees, drinking beer and chatting to another English couple.


Sri Lankan New Years

On New Years eve daytime, Mike and I headed down to the palm tree area and put up the slackline. We spent the majority of the day slacklining and attracting the interest of various people until eventually, we decided to grab some quick dinner before heading back to our respective hostels to prepare for the evening.

Mirissa Beach
Mirissa Beach

For once the music was actually decent and all the people we had met in the past few days were together on the dancefloor. We celebrated at midnight with hugs etc and then continued to drink and dance until about 3 am when I decided to call it a night. I left Mike and the others sitting on plastic chairs on the beach as the ocean washed up around their feet. That night I slept on a makeshift bed on the rooftop under the stars and full moon, which turned out to be a great way to enter the new year.


Sea Turtles and Slacklining

A friend of mine arrived from France the next day and that evening four of us went for dinner on the beach and saw a giant sea turtle wash up right next to the bar we were at.  The staff asked us not to take photos though as it scares them away and they’re trying to find somewhere to lay eggs.


We spent our last day in Mirissa swimming, slacklining, relaxing in hammocks and chatting to a hilarious Australian couple from Alice Springs – proper bogans, in the best possible way!

Slack-lining
Slack-lining

Unawatuna and Camp Kush

After Mirissa we headed north-west and booked 3 days in Unawatuna at a cool little place called Camp Kush, which is made up of tipi’s built around a campfire in a clearing amongst palm trees and a mangrove swamp. It has a few private rooms for £20 and five-person shared tipis for £7 per person.


There is a main covered sitting area with sofas and a dining table, and the lovely host Buchi tends to your every need – offering tea, coffee or beer at every opportunity. The facilities are fairly basic in a campsite kind of way – cold water, outdoor showers and only two toilets…. but if you aren’t too picky you’ll find it more than sufficient.

Camp Kush
Camp Kush

The first evening we took a tuk-tuk to Jungle Beach, where apparently you can snorkel with turtles. We didn’t see any turtles unfortunately but we had a great time swimming and drinking on the beach anyway.  After sunset, we headed back to camp for an amazing pasta dinner and partied the rest of the night away with some other guests who had arrived.

Surfing, Sri Lankan Style!
Surfing, Sri Lankan Style!

Attempting to Surf

The next day we went to Martin’s Surf Point (MSP) near Galle to do some surfing. I spent most of the day swallowing sea water and not catching waves since I can’t actually surf, but it was good exercise. The board hire is only 300 rupees an hour (£1.50) and they are very relaxed about it – so much so that we almost forgot to pay when leaving and nobody even said anything. That evening we again joined everyone at the campsite for dinner and afterwards had quite a few drinks, including a fair amount of the local Sri Lankan coconut rum, ‘Arrack’, mixed with coke – known as Arrack Attack!

Wijaya Beach
Wijaya Beach

On day three in Unawatuna, we finally got to swim with giant sea turtles! Typically my GoPro battery was dead so I didn’t get any footage, but it was an amazing experience none-the-less. We then watched the most amazing sunset from Wijaya beach and took photographs of the stilt-fisherman silhouetted against the horizon. That evening after dinner we decided to explore the nightlife in Unawatuna and went to an awful bar called Happy Banana, playing music so bad we endured it for only 15 minutes until deciding to call it a night.

Sri Lankan Stilt Fisherman
Sri Lankan Stilt Fisherman

Hikkaduwa

I spent a few nights staying in Hikkaduwa at a place called Hilda’s Guest House, run by a Swiss woman.  It’s a bit pricier than most places but has a swimming pool and includes a free breakfast of eggs, toast, fresh fruit and yoghurt.

A friend and I spent an evening having traditional Sri Lankan fish curry at a beach restaurant called Drunken Monkey. Very affordable too – large 620ml beers for £1.75 and curry for just over £2. Then we explored a bit of Hikkaduwa town before heading back to the guesthouse to swim and drink until midnight.

I also spent a few days with a group of friends at a large Airbnb house called Casa Hikka Villa, a few kilometres outside of Hikkaduwa.  It has a huge swimming pool, kitchen, living room and BBQ facilities, and is exceptionally good value for money if you have a large group.

Mirissa
Mirissa

 

The Southern coast of Sri Lanka has some of the most beautiful beaches and awesome surf spots I’ve ever seen! It’s still relatively cheap and unspoilt by tourism so if you have the chance I suggest you get out there soon!

 

Read more of Sri Lanka here: Outstanding Beauty in Central Sri Lanka

Need somewhere cheap to stay? – Stay : Sri Lanka

 

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