Giving the elephant some coins in exchange for a pat on the head with his trunk….I think it’s supposed to be a blessing.
The meditation centre at Auroville - a commune started by a French woman in the 60s (see blog below for more details).
For my third big trip to India and Dave’s first, we decided Chennai would be a good place to start. I remembered it being slightly less of an assault on the senses than Delhi and it was closer to places we wanted to visit.
We arrived late at night and I was surprised by the lack of hassle at the airport. We organised a pre-paid taxi with no bother at all, until we got into it that was. The ride to the guesthouse brought a lot of memories back for me and put all other terrifying road experiences to one side in Dave’s mind. The driver was mental, flying past cows, auto-rickshaws, lorries, buses – weaving in and out like the king of the road. There were many eye-shutting moments.
The next few days were spent acclimatising and getting used to the chaos. It can take up to half an hour to walk just 500 metres in Chennai thanks to the vehicles that seem to drive at you. We were naturally delighted with the abundance of cheap, tasty food but not so delighted with the staring and incessant beeping of horns.
We took a disappointing half day tour of the city and then decided to move on to India’s Little France, Pondicherry – although it is now called Puducherry, it is still referred to by locals as Pondy.
We took a ‘luxury’ air-con bus for the three hour journey and had numb bums when we arrived. An auto-rickshaw driver took us to a lovely place called Hotel Continental which was in the heart of the French quarter and close to the immaculate seaside promenade.
Parts of Pondy are so quiet and removed from typical India that as ridiculous as it may sound, it could feel like you were in France at times. There’s clearly a big ex-pat community and it’s as common to find espressos and croissants on the menu as curry and rice. French wine is expensive but India makes its own fine tasting variety at a fraction of the price, what a treat!
Traffic is forbidden along the promenade road from 6pm until 7.30am which is one of the many reasons it is a hugely popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Every night crowds stroll along the front taking in the Gandhi monument, the lighthouse and countless stalls selling Indian snacks and drinks. We also spotted a large number of nightly power-walking groups as well as men playing boules.
While in Pondy, we took a trip out to Auroville – an international commune built on soil donated by 124 countries where people from all walks of life strive for harmony. Of the 1,800 inhabitants, two-thirds are foreign and there are mixed views on the place. The French woman, whose vision Auroville was, is known as ‘The Mother’ died in 1973 aged 97.
She had hoped it would grow to a city (or universal township) of 50,000 but there seems to be a long way to go. You could argue that it’s a place for the self-indulgent to fulfil their every whim on a spiritual quest to India – or a place to leave all your worldly material goods behind you instead realising interconnectedness, love and the divine. The jury’s out!
Dragging ourselves away from Pondy was pretty tough going, especially as I already know it’s one of the most chilled out places in this gigantic country – but, we’re full of energy and dying to see what this wonderful and frustrating land throws at us next.
Getting back to Thailand after Burma was a bit of an unpleasant experience, what a contrast! However, we had no choice but to hang around Bangkok while we waited for our Indian visas that took nearly two weeks to be processed.
We weren’t sure whether we would still be around for the arrival of the newlyweds but not having seen friends for so long and having missed The Big Day, we decided that we just had to wait on for them before jetting off to Chennai.
To get out of Bangkok and keep hold of our sanity we took a bus to a seaside resort called Hua Hin, which the not-so-trusty guidebook described as ‘elegant’ and a beach alternative to seedy Pattaya. Wrong! It is in fact just a mini-Pattaya…
The first night we got not even one wink of sleep as bed bugs, fleas and mosquitoes feasted on our flesh. Feeling demented the next day, we moved to a lovely teak boutique place next door called Victor’s which gets ten out of ten from us.
Hua Hin is a funny place and seedy as hell as we inadvertently discovered. However, there are areas you can avoid the battalions of dirty old men ogling scantily clad teenagers wiggling around bar stools, thank god. On our first night, we wandered into the centre of Smutsville and couldn’t seem to get out, it was like a maze with hundreds of girls calling out to us in their whiny voices – ‘come, come massage? Drink?’ Er, no thanks, just the exit please!
We spent the next few days enjoying not being in Bangkok but quickly realised Hua Hin is in fact a gangster’s paradise. One place, ‘Buffalo Bill’s’ was run by a particularly charming thug from either Essex or London (either way, probably a West Ham or Spurs fan). A couple came in with one set of their elderly parents and sat down at a table for drinks – I think they were Scottish. The owner-thug tells them to get up if they’re not eating as they were sitting at a dining table. He was not polite. The younger man said ‘ok, we’ll go and find somewhere else but it’s not like you’re rushed off your feet’ to which owner-thug takes offence and shoves the older man out the way while trying to wrestle the younger man out of his bar. After they had left, the thug decided he wanted a fight, so he and his geriatric dirty old git mate went in pursuit of this seemingly nice family on a motorbike five minutes after they’d left. I must point out that owner-thug is in at least his 50s with long grey curly hair and is of Orca physique; he has a wife and two young children. I think he needs to go back to Charm School or leave the ‘hospitality’ trade. Sadly he is quite indicative of what Thailand has become in many parts.
We did enjoy our charming guesthouse, the ok beach and a day of luxury by the Hilton poolside for a small fee though and we felt refreshed returning to Bangkok to spend a few days with our dear friends Ruth and Johnny.
We met them at their hotel which is so far removed from anywhere we’ve stayed and Ruth was lovely enough to let me raid their bathroom for freebies, which I did, with just a fraction of shame! We spent our evenings chatting and eating street food and we showed them around where we stayed in Banglamphu.
So refreshing it was to spend time with people we know and it was filled with laughter and fun – Ruth is positively blooming and did very well watching the three of us guzzling the Chang beer in the evenings. We did go for a massage and listen to live music too though, it wasn’t all beer, beer, beer. All too soon it was time to say farewell as we headed off to India for chaos and they went off to Samui for relaxation. Thank you friends for letting us share some of your honeymoon, we loved it!