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India and Bangladesh

Contents:


Return to India

We returned to India from the Maldives, landing in Bangalore, the heart of India's IT industry. The town is certainly better developed than Chennai and somewhat cleaner. For example there are many more restaurants, bars and pubs, that approach a western standard of cleanliness. However, traffic was nearly as chaotic and surprisingly, for an IT capital, there were many power cuts!

In the last update I did not write about some of the first impressions we had of India when we arrived in Chennai. Here is one, Indians bob their head from side to side when they mean yes or "I understand". Initially we took it to mean "no", making an ass of ourselves explaining the same thing three times to the cab driver that took us from the airport, before Federico, another traveler who was sharing the cab with us told us what it actually meant. We had a good laugh.

Indians often ask what your "good" name is. For example when calling ahead to a hotel, in an attempt to make a reservation, they will ask you what your "good" name is. Not that it helps because invariably when getting there, nobody will remember your "good" name, or have any clue about a reservation. Maybe they would remember it better if you gave your "bad" name?

Bangalore left no big impression, there is not that much to see, except for the giant Nandi. This bull statue is one of the largest in India, it was also 468 years old (in 2005) according to the monk in charge, so it must have been built in 1537. However, he waved off popular belief that the statue had grown in size after completion as pure fiction. He told us that there are only 4 bull statues of comparable size in India.

In nearby Mysore there are a few more interesting things to visit. Namely the City Palace (Amber Vilas) and Chamundi hill. The city palace is a nicely maintained and well worth a visit. Unfortunately cameras are not allowed inside.

Chamundi Hill has nice views over Mysore. The hilltop temple is nothing special but a short walk down the hill there is another giant Nandi statue. This one dates from 1659.

Ooty (now officially named Udagamandalam) was cooler due to its higher elevation at 2200 meters. This was a nice break from the otherwise warm and humid climate in southern India. In this season however many people try to escape the heat and head to the mountains, so it was very crowded.

There is a scenic train ride through the Nilgiri Hills from Ooty to Coonoor and a steam train from Coonoor to Mettupalaiyam. It is a popular trip.

Although we had heard many stories from other travelers about problems with food, we had none. Instead we found South Indian food to be quite delicious. Certain dishes are served on a banana leaf and you must eat them with your fingers!

One day, while sitting in a road side restaurant, I observed a police officer call a traffic offender to him and watched bewildered as the officer slapped the offender in the face! Wow, that really brings home some cultural differences!

Kolkata (Calcutta)

After spending a short time in southern India, we wanted to go to the north, specifically to visit Bangladesh, Sikkim and Nepal (we later dropped Sikkim). Hence we chose to fly to Kolkata but this was not as easy as it first seemed.

Most airlines in India discriminate against foreigners in their pricing structure. For example I saw a Jet Airways ad for a flight from Bangalore to Kolkata for 6940 Indian Rupees (approximately 155 USD) but I could not book it because I am a foreigner. Foreigners had to pay 290 USD. I felt offended. Why the difference? There are tens of millions of Indians that earn more money than the average foreign backpacker, and these are exactly the Indians that are flying!

Fortunately a new airline appeared in the Indian skies last year, Air Deccan. When I logged on to their website I found a flight from Chennai to Kolkata for 2800 Rupees (approximately 63 USD) and no discrimination against foreigners whatsoever! Unfortunately the connecting flights where full, so we went to Chennai by train, in spite of my hope not to have to return there. A price difference of 227 US Dollars per person made it worth the effort. Competition can be great and it may eventually bring an end to discrimination against foreigners in the Indian skies.

Kolkata's most famous resident must have been the late Mother Teresa. Somehow I had it in my mind that Kolkata must therefore be the most destitute city in India or maybe even on Earth. Although Kolkata is not clean by any western standard it is a lot cleaner (and greener) than Chennai for example, there also seemed to be fewer beggars. We were surprised. There is even a small backpacker hotspot in the area around Sudder Street, with many hotels, restaurants, Internet cafes and bookshops.

There are many power cuts though, the last two days that we spent in Kolkata the power was simply never on. Shops and hotels had their own generators.

We also visited Mother Teresa's tomb, which is starting to become a tourist attraction of its own. Her tomb is in a room on the ground floor of her mission. On the walls stories and photos expose her life.

Some of them carry peculiar quotes from her such as this one: "The poor are the most precious gift of God to us - Jesus' hidden presence." What can you say? India has clearly been blessed with a larger share of this precious gift than most countries, so she came to the right place to find Jesus...

Bangladesh, been there, done that!

Curiosity and a country race obliging, we just had to visit Bangladesh, fortunately it is possible to apply for a visa at the Bangladeshi consulate in Kolkata and collect the visa on the same day. While applying for the Bangladeshi visa we met Mark, an Australian traveler, together with whom we took the bus to Dhaka the next day.

Once in Dhaka, we found what was probably the most chaotic city we have visited so far. They drive like crazy, which happens in many developing countries, but in Bangladesh it is just a little more extreme! No vehicle stops for traffic lights when they are red, not even when a policeman is standing at the crossing. Once two friendly policemen helped us cross a street when the light was green for pedestrians, shouting and yelling at cars, busses and trucks to stop! Another time we nearly got run over by a speeding bus, who clearly had not a care in the world for pedestrians.

During the few days that we spent in Bangladesh, we witnessed the aftermath of 2 serious accidents involving busses and trucks. We were also involved in a rickshaw "accident" when our driver simply squeezed a pull cart between his vehicle and a bus. Instead of moving backwards to dislodge his rickshaw he kept trying to go forward and eventually managed to pull loose, doing much more damage to the vehicles involved, including fortunately to his own. He then sped off, shaking his head complaining how stupid the other drivers were... sure.

Besides total traffic chaos, the city is awash with beggars. It was a rather shocking experience as they were unfortunately much more persistent than in India, following you street after street. Some beggars were literally throwing themselves on the ground in front of us, crawling towards us holding one hand up! Annoyingly many beggars, covered with layers of dirt and possibly infected with all kinds of diseases, touch you to try to get your attention. Sometimes it became too much, we had to physically push them away or ask a nearby cop (there were many) to send them away.

The major sight in Dhaka is Lalbagh Fort, a little peaceful oasis inside the city consisting of a few ancient buildings in a well groomed garden surrounded by a fortification wall. Then there is Sadarghat, a point on the river where all the boats from around Bangladesh seem to convert to. There are chaotic scenes both on land and on water. We got ourselves a short trip on the river, only to see how young boys jumped into the water to swim to our boat and ask for money.

A lot of Bangladeshis ogle at fair skinned girls and they are not very subtle about it either. While in the train to Chittagong, a guy stood in the doorway staring at Maris for several minutes. Subtle remarks, such as "thank you and good bye" had no effect so after a few minutes I got up and slammed the door shut in front of his face.

As a foreigner one invariably attracts a lot of attention in Bangladesh probably because there are not very many foreigners. For us it already started at the border, where the head of the border guards just wanted to talk with us when he heard that we had entered the country. In many places whole groups of people aggregated to take a look at us as if we were famous. Some Bangladeshis go out of their way to help foreigners.

Mark had brought up the subject of the ship-breaking yards, just north of Chittagong. I remembered seeing a TV report about it many years ago, so thought that it was an interesting idea. Not wanting to needlessly risk our lives on Bangladeshi roads we took the train to Chittagong, from where we took a rickshaw to the yards.

Unfortunately no guard would let us in, all referring to orders from their bosses. Apparently too many western journalists have visited the yards and wrote bad reports about the working conditions. But we just had to see it. Fortunately Maris managed to convince one guard to let us in.

From inside one of the yards, we saw several ships that were beached and half torn up. It is an interesting sight. No-one was working while we were there as it was Friday, the Muslim holiday, so we were not able to witness those appalling working conditions for which the yards have become known.

We returned to Dhaka by train, this time we saw kids train surfing, they were jumping from the roof of one train carriage to the next while the train was moving. They were doing this continuously, once on the next carriage they turned around to jump back on the carriage they came from. Seems like a particularly dangerous way to kill some time!

In the train, a constant trickle of beggars passed, some crawling along the floor with open wounds! At stations beggars aggregated outside of the windows.

Our main objective however in this part of the world was to see the Himalayas and we could not wait to get to Nepal. Several airlines fly from Dhaka to Kathmandu, but because of Bangladesh' absurd visa restrictions we had to leave through the border crossing indicated in the visa and therefore had to take the bus back to Kolkata.

We picked up an English language newspaper on the bus, one article caught my attention, it was that of a traffic accident, apparently a female student had been killed by a speeding bus while on her motorcycle near Dhaka university. The bus continued on its path, drove through a red-light (nothing unusual in Bangladesh) and hit a few pedestrians. The police, which had a booth at this junction had apparently never made any effort to control traffic. This caused enraged students to set the bus on fire and attack the police booth in question! Next the police "retaliated" by entering the university, beating up anybody they could find and ransacking the building! 50 students were injured in this raid.

After being to Bangladesh, nothing in this story really surprised me.

When I asked Mark if he would ever return to Bangladesh, he answered in his typical colorful Australian fashion: "I've got more chance of rubbing me arse on the moon!"

If you would like to be notified or no longer want to be notified of our travel updates please e-mail me.

e-mail Otto de Voogd


Photos

Bangalore

Bangalore Bull Temple Bangalore Nandi Statue Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Bangalore

Mysore

Chamundi Hill Temple Bull Eating Trash Red Faced Monkey Chamundi Nandi Statue Mysore Palace Mysore Palace Square Mysore Palace Don't Touch Me Deer in Bandipur Elephants in Bandipur

Ooty

Ooty Lake Boats View From Boda Detta Indian Family Ooty Rose Garden Flower in Ooty Rose Garden Paper Dosa Ooty - Coonoor Train Inside the Ooty - Coonoor Train Scenic Train from Ooty to Coonoor Monkeys (Macaques) in Tree Preparing the Coonoor Steam Train Locomotive Coonoor Steam Train Crossing a Bridge

Kolkata

Mother Teresa Statue Human Powered Rickshaw Typical Kolkata Taxi Typical Kolkata Bus

Dhaka

Passenger Ferry in Bangladesh Lalbagh Fort Streets of Dhaka Burka Tailor Sadarghat Swimming Boys Bangladesh River Ferries Sadarghat River Traffic

Chittagong

Chittagong Ship-Breaking Yards Half a Ship Stardom in Bangladesh Begging Boy Train Surfing


Practical Information

To my knowledge the information provided here was accurate at the time of our visit. However time passes and things can change.
 

Visas

India: from Indian embassy in Yangon: 65 USD (40 USD + 25 USD for telex) the process takes one week. The embassy in Yangon is a good place to apply. As not many people apply there so we never had to wait a long time.
Bangladesh: from Bangladeshi consulate (high commissioner) in Kolkata: 2100 INR + 3 passport photos. Apply in the morning, collect in the afternoon. You must enter and leave the country by the port of entry indicated on the visa and the duration of your stay is limited to what you fill in under the question "proposed duration of stay". Quite unpractical.

Money

India: Many, but not all, ATMs work with foreign cards. Cash US Dollars in small denominations are useful to pay entrance fees to government controlled sites as the price in Indian rupees is some 20% higher.
Bangladesh: Only Standard Chartered bank's ATMs in Dhaka worked for my bankcard (Maestro network).

Travel

Airlines:
Discrimination against foreigners is rife in the Indian skies! For example flight from Bangalore to Kolkata on Jet Airways for Indians costs between 4700 and 6940 INR (approx. 105 to 155 USD) but foreigners have to pay 290 USD!

Only one airline does not discriminate against foreigners:

  • Air Deccan - India's new low cost carrier. Good, cheap and ethical.
These airlines discriminate in differing degrees against foreigners:
  • Kingfisher Airlines - India's newest airline. Cheaper but overcharges foreigners by some 15%. Operated only one route when we were in India, though more will come.
  • Indian Airlines - State Airline, expensive, has double fare system.
  • Air Sahara - Private airline, expensive, has double fare system.
  • Air India - The other state airline, expensive and has double fare system as well as a bad reputation.
  • Jet Airways - India largest private airline. The most discriminatory airline in India, foreigners pay more than twice as much as Indians.

Train:
Indian Rail Make sure you block pop-ups before visiting this site.

Internet

All over India it was generally possible to find a cheap Internet cafe with a fast connection. In Bangladesh we encountered Internet access only once in a hotel in Chittagong which was quite fast and affordable.

Bookshops

Bangalore: Premier Bookshop on Church Street has many English language books crammed in every possible space in the small shop. Including some travel guides.
Kolkata: Around Sudder street there are many small bookshops that sell English language books and travel guides, including second hand books.

Costs

India - Rupee, approx. rates: 1 USD = 44 INR, 1 EUR = 56 INR

Prepaid airport taxi to Bangalore center (Brigade Road): 180 INR
Bangalore: Hotel Vellara: 862 INR incl. tax, bathroom, hot water, sat-TV, fan.
Bangalore: Shangrila Lodging (182 Brigade Road): 648 INR incl. tax, bathroom, hot water, sat-TV, fan. Smaller rooms than Vellara, but cheaper and more central. Tibetan run.
Bangalore: WebWorld, on Brigade Road, fast internet connections.
Bangalore: Dahlia, a Japanese Restaurant on 19 Church Street has genuine Japanese food at Japanese prices.
Train: Bangalore -> Mysore: 305 INR (a/c chair in Shatabdi, the fast train, takes 2 hours)
Mysore: Hotel Bombay Tiffanys: 756 INR (non a/c suite), 513 INR (non a/c room), hot water only in morning.
Mysore: Palace entry fee: 20 INR
"Taxi": Mysore -> Ooty: 400 INR (car was returning to Ooty).
Ooty (Udagamandalam): Reflections Guest House: 500 INR (hot water only in morning, smelly bathroom)
Ooty lake: 5 INR + 20 INR for camera, 60 INR for 30 min. in 2 person pedal boat.
Ooty: Bus to Doda Betta: 5 INR (but there were no buses back in the afternoon).
Ooty: Doda Betta peak entry fee: 2 INR.
Ooty Rose Garden: 10 INR + 30 INR for camera.
Train: Ooty (Udagamandalam) -> Coonoor: 7 INR + 15 INR for seat reservation. Great views.
Coonoor botanical garden: 5 INR + 25 INR for camera.
Train: Coonoor -> Mettupalaiyam: 8 INR, steam train, great views.
Train: Mettupalaiyam -> Chennai Central (19:45 - 05:30) class 2A: 1311 INR (including 300 INR Tatkal "emergency" reservation fee). All trains where full.
Chennai: Paradise Hotel: 300 INR no air-con, 600 INR air-con, sat-TV, bathroom, no warm water.
Chennai: Taxi to airport: 250 INR
Flight: Chennai -> Kolkata with Air Deccan: 3021 INR incl. all taxes.
Kolkata: Super Guest House: 880 INR incl. taxes. a/c, bathroom, cable-TV and a few cockroaches. None the less one of the few clean hotels in the Sudder street area.
Taxi: Kolkata (Sudder street) to BRTC bus station: 150 INR with meter.
Bus: Kolkata -> Dhaka with BRTC: 1000 INR (return, no 1-way sold) in spite of the claim that they have 2 buses every day, when we wanted to return there was no bus going back, so we returned with another company. Their bus station is also 14 km out of town. It felt a little as if we had been scammed.

Bangladesh - Taka, approx. rates: 1 USD = 64 BDT, 1 EUR = 80 BDT

Dhaka: Hotel Royal Palace: 1350 BDT, incl 5% service charge. a/c, sat-TV, bathroom, warm water.
Dhaka: Lalbagh Fort entry fee: 2 BDT
Boat trip on river: 50 BDT/hour, but they try to scam you, our trip lasted only 25 minutes after which he still wanted 50, but we only paid 25. Stand your ground, apparently they want to learn the hard way that they too need to keep their end of the bargain.
Rickshaws and taxis all have meters, refusal to put them on, always mean that you are being overcharged. Insist on the meter.
Train: Dhaka -> Chittagong: 290 BDT, 1st class.
Chittagong: Asian Hotel: 850 for non-a/c room, bathroom, sat-TV, a/c room for 1500 BDT. Has affordable and good Internet access available.
Bus Dhaka -> Kolkata with Shyamoli Pariban: 600 BDT (1-way) though you must walk across the border to a bus at the other side, it is cheaper than the BRTC bus and not much worse. Besides they sell 1-way tickets and travel every day. Their arrival/departure point in Kolkata is also far more central, a few 100 meters from Sudder street.
Bangladeshi Exit Tax: 300 BDT, we did receive a receipt in Bangladeshi, some suspicion of a scam though as the receipt had to be handed in when at the final Bangladeshi checkpoint.

India - Rupee, approx. rates: 1 USD = 43.50 INR, 1 EUR = 54 INR

Kolkata: Hotel Gulishan Palace: 700 INR incl. tax. a/c, bathroom, warm water, sat-TV. Got a group discount (together with fellow travelers we took 3 rooms). Normal rate 780 INR.
Note: In Kolkata, Super Guest House and Hotel Gulishan Palace were the only two decent hotels that we found with clean air-conditioned double rooms in the Sudder street area costing less than 1000 Rupees per night. We checked out quite a few places.
Taxi: Kolkata -> Airport: 200 INR
Flight: Kolkata -> Kathmandu with Indian Airlines: 130 USD + 17.50 USD tax. Executive class, economy was full and would have cost 110 USD plus tax.


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