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Backwaters of Kumarakom, Kerala. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography.

Experiencing some of the best places to visit in Kerala with CGH Earth

In my “Best places to visit in India” series, I’m focusing on Kerala in this post. In January, on a trip to Kerala with CGH Earth, I visited some of the best places to visit in Kerala and discovered some new Kerala destinations – from beaches to Backwaters, from spice gardens to national parks. Kerala points of interest included in this post include:

  • Marari Beach
  • Cardamom Hills, Western Ghats
  • Thekkady
  • Periyar Tiger Reserve
  • Kumarakom Backwaters
  • Cochin / Fort Kochi
  • Chittoor

In January 2019, photographer Andrew Adams and I travelled in Kerala for 10 days with CGH Earth. The idea was to visit five different CGH Earth properties, located in five different landscapes of Kerala, and to showcase the current tourism conditions. The world heard about the devastating floods of August 2018, but not about the recovery, and return to normal. This is part 2 of a two-part series on our journey and report on tourism in Kerala. See CGH Earth: The best Kerala hotels and resorts.

Kerala is often called “God’s own country” and a major tourism destination in India. It’s a beautiful, tropical state in South India with palm-tree lined beaches, an extensive system of Backwaters, rolling green hills, wildlife and tiger reserves, and much, much more.

As we journeyed through the state with CGH Earth, we heard many stories, and had many cultural and natural experiences, that brought Kerala to life for us. These are some of my favourite Kerala destinations.

Marari Beach and the fishing community. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Best places to visit in Kerala: Marari Beach and the heroes of Kerala

Marari Beach is on the Arabian Sea coast, in the Alappuzha region of Kerala (south of Cochin / Fort Kochi). It’s a beautiful, long, white sand beach – one of the best Kerala destinations for water lovers. This region is also home to the Backwaters, so here you get the best of both worlds.

The CGH Earth Marari Beach Resort was inspired by a local fishing village and is spread across 35 acres of land, with a long beachfront that’s perfect for watching legendary sunsets. I would add it to any trip to Kerala.

As luck would have it, this area was not devastated by the August 2018 flooding. In fact, many people escaping from the floods found refuge here. And many people escaping from the floods found heroes here, too. When we were at Marari Beach Resort, we met two of them.

I interviewed fishermen Frances Bibin and Jackson Pollyail from Maraikam Village at the Marari Beach Resort, over chai in the open-air restaurant. With the help of a translator, they told me an incredible story of courage and heroism. As the waters rose in Kerala in mid-August 2018, many people were stranded on bridges, rooftops, and high ground. The only people who had any chance of reaching them were the fishermen of Kerala, who brave the ocean every day. They had small boats, knowledge of moving water, and most of all the willingness to help.

With no thought of their own safety, 4,500 fishermen of Kerala sprang to the rescue by moving their boats by truck to the most flooded regions of the state. They worked for three solid days without rest, and continuously for two weeks, in the disaster relief effort. They risked their boats and their safety, navigated dangerous waterways full of unseen obstacles, carried older people and children on their shoulders while wading through water above their heads, and performed many other heroic actions.

These heroes saved the lives of approximately 60,000 stranded people. And they did it spontaneously, without anyone asking, simply from the goodness of their hearts. In the west we have Spiderman, Superman, and Ironman. In Kerala they have … Fisherman! 

Tea Plantation in Thekkady, Cardamom Hills, Western Ghats. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Tea, tamarind, and tigers in Thekkady

CGH Earth Spice Village is in Thekkady, among the Western Ghats – one of the best places to visit in Kerala. It’s a charming property that evokes the local culture as well as the colonial past, with accommodation in thatched roof cottages, and tea and spices growing right on the grounds.

The highland region of the Western Ghats where Thekkady is located is romantically known as the Cardamom Hills. It’s an area ideally suited to growing spices – as well as coffee, tea, fruit, and many other delectable things. The Western Ghats is one of my favourite Kerala destinations, and I will always visit on any Kerala trip.

The Western Ghats are known globally as one of eight “hottest biodiversity hotspots.” Older than the Himalaya mountains, the tropical evergreen forests that cover these hills are home to at least 325  threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species.

While at Spice Village, we walked in a spice garden lush with tropical flowers, sweet fruit, and tangy spices, visited Connemara Tea plantation, and went on a walking safari in Periyar National Park. This high range area was not affected by the August 2018 flooding in Kerala, but roads further below were washed away, cutting the region off for several days.

Abraham Spice Garden

After breakfast at Spice Village one morning, we visited Abraham Spice Garden — where we met the charming owner, Abraham. When we arrived, there was still mist in the air, and the garden was drenched in rich colours and earthy scents. Abraham was born into this business, and even after 50 years he’s still passionate. He led us through the garden with enthusiasm and humour and we had a wonderful time smelling and tasting an array of spices, from cardamom to pepper, and from ginger to tamarind. He also showed us glorious tropical flowers and fruits, including lemons the size of footballs and bananas the shape of beans.

The garden seemed to be in disarray, it was not what I expected, not a neatly organized farm. Abraham lets the spices and fruits grow naturally, and he explained they are extremely labour intensive to harvest. They all have to be hand-picked, which requires more skill than meets the eye. Plus, some of them are dangerous to harvest as they grow very high up on trees that soar to the skies. This tour was an engaging way to experience the spice culture of The Cardamom Hills.

Periyar Tiger Reserve in the morning light. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve, is less than a kilometre from the entrance of Spice Village, so early one morning we walked with in-house naturalist Girish to the gate. Girish is from Kumily, and he was a forest guard in Periyar for years – he’s literally been going into this park for 30 years and estimates that he’s seen about 70% of it. Most of the core zone is not open to tourists, but he was able to explore the off-limits areas as a forest ranger.

At the gate, we met our guide Pabhu, who is from one of the local tribes. He’s been guiding people on walking safaris in Periyar for five years, and it’s evident that he loves his job. So, off we set, for a five kilometre walk through the jungle. Entering the park just after sunrise, it was cloaked in mist and smelling of rich earth, nature is verdant and fragrant here.

We saw sunny meadows, and forests thick with teak trees, and walked up and down, over streams and past bamboo groves. The canopy was filled with birds, plus we saw black langurs and the giant Malabar squirrel. We also passed a small herd of very large gaur. Some of the birds we saw include racket tail drongo, great tit, rufous treepie, golden oriole, woodpecker, parakeet, and many more.

We also saw copious signs of elephants, who left droppings about a week before we were there. This park is also home to tigers, leopards, and black panthers – however, they are very rarely seen in the buffer zone. Our guides told us the park is also home to lots of other creatures, including the King Cobra and rock pythons …. Luckily or unluckily, we didn’t spot any of those.

It was my first time in Periyar Tiger Reserve and a wonderful introduction to this popular park, a top Kerala destination. I have heard that it can be very busy, but where we were, we only saw one other small group of tourists the entire morning.

Evening on the Kumarakom Backwaters, Kerala. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Kumarakom Backwaters

Coconut Lagoon is one of CGH Earth’s premier properties, and for many good reasons. Located on Vembanad Lake in the Kumarakom Backwaters, Coconut Lagoon was designed to showcase the unique culture of the Backwaters. At Coconut Lagoon, you get an authentic experience of the Backwaters, in a comfortable and naturally luxurious setting. All of the buildings are in the traditional Kerala style and rescued from demolition.

The Backwaters is a vast network of lagoons, canals, rivers, and lakes and one of the best tourist places in Kerala. No Kerala trip is complete without a Backwaters cruise. It’s called the Backwaters because the waters are connected to the ocean, and affected by the ocean tides: sometimes they flow “backwards.” Vembanad is the largest of the lakes, covering an area of 2033 square kilometres. A unique ecosystem, the backwaters are home to a wide variety of crabs, frogs, birds, otters, turtles, plants, plus a thriving tourism business.

Coconut Lagoon and this entire region, Kumarakom, was underwater during the August 2018 flooding. We talked to several people about what happened — and how there were no casualties thanks to some fast-acting people who listened to the signs of nature. Their story demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit, how Kumarakom recovered, and why tourism is so important to this beautiful area.

The Kerala floods in Kumarakom

On August 15, 2018, as the rest of India was celebrating Independence Day, the general manager of Coconut Lagoon, Samboo, was growing worried. A local man, he saw the waters of the canals rising and knew something was wrong. Rising waters and flooding is normal to this low-lying region during the August monsoon, but this was different. The water was the too muddy, and very red.

Samboo didn’t wait. On August 16, he shifted the guests to Marari Beach Resort on the coast, switched off the electricity, told the staff to go home, and let the cows loose. Several managers stayed behind and they moved all the furniture up to a higher level.

By the 17th, the water was still rising, the snakes were coming out of the ground, and the house naturalist, Vishnu, said the water was not going to stop. Vishnu had been watching the birds, and by their movements, he knew this was not normal monsoon flooding.

Meanwhile, the villagers were getting desperate, so the remaining staff at Coconut Lagoon switched their efforts to helping the locals. By this time, the resort was completely flooded, and almost completely underwater.

Because of local knowledge and experience, there were no casualties in the Kumarakon region. People like Samboo acted fast, and everyone fled to safety. Moreover, there was an incredible community spirit as everyone pitched in to help with the disaster relief.

After about August 19, the water began to subside and the staff started cleaning up Coconut Lagoon Resort. They set a deadline of September 1 to open the resort, and turn the electricity back on. They made the deadline, and have continued to work to bring things back to normal.

We couldn’t see any signs of the flood, though apparently there was some environmental damage, such as all the rice paddies flooding. Resilience, local knowledge, and community spirit combined to save lives and bring the Backwaters back to their former glory.

Mariellen at CGH Earth David Hall, Cochin. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Cochin / Fort Kochi

Fort Cochin is an ancient trading port on the coast, where the Backwaters meet the Arabian Sea. It was an important stop on the Spice Route, a hub for the trade of spices, tea, and coffee, and a prized gem for European colonists. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the English colonized Fort Cochin, so it’s a small city packed with history. CGH Earth’s elegant Brunton Boatyard captures this history through every detail and is located on the water, in the natural harbour. Most of the rooms, plus a pool and two restaurants, face the harbour.

Cochin is my favourite city in Kerala, a compact area full of historical sites and spice markets, shady streets and seaside views, boutique hotels and artists’ cafes. Morning is a good time to see this charming and historical port town. We borrowed bicycles from Brunton Boatyard and cycled through the streets before breakfast. The historic and touristy part of Fort Cochin is small and easily covered by bike, and Brunton Boatyard is ideally located in the heart of it.

The morning light softly slants through old vine-covered trees. Narrow winding streets lined with crumbling walls, picturesque homes, and bright bougainvillea are quiet at this hour. The fishermen gather along the sea coast near the Chinese fishing nets, and uniformed children ride their bicycles to school. But Cochin is also romantic in the evening, when the outdoor cafes are festooned with lights and the balmy ocean breeze blows.

Cochin is also known for a biannual art event. Every two years the city hosts the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and we were lucky to be there for it. We spent hours visiting the main venue, Aspinhall House, and several other venues too, including Pepper House and David Hall. Many of these buildings were former spice godowns (warehouses) transformed for the Biennale into art galleries.

When you hear a word like Biennale, you might think of stuffy galleries and expensive, precious art works. Nothing could be further from this Biennale, an explosion of youthful, innovative, thought-provoking installations — many of them built into the venues making them seamless experiences.

Way too much to describe here. A very large proportion of the work challenged patriarchal views and supported women empowerment. But my favourite piece was called Catch a Rainbow. It was on the lawn at Pepper House, a simple pipe that sprayed mist. You had to enter the mist to see the rainbow. I ran in and spun around and saw a bright multicolour rainbow surround me. It was beautiful and honestly brought tears to my eyes. It captured the wonder and beauty of nature and life and made me feel like a child again.

Maitre d’hotel Milton at Chittoor Kottaram. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Chittoor Village on the Backwaters

Not far from Cochin is a village called Chittoor. Very few tourists visit Chittoor, and therein lies the charm. But Chittoor is where CGH Earth Chittoor Kottaram is located. And Chittoor Kottaram is a very special place. Chittoor Kottaram was the last stop on our 10 day tour through Kerala with CGH Earth, and it contained everything wonderful about the trip and then some.

Chittoor Kottaram is a single-key heritage mansion, a small but exceedingly elegant palace that was built by the Raja of Cochin in the early 19th century. All the stars lined up to create the Chittoor Kottaram we experienced. The willingness of the royal family to allow it to be used as a hotel. A saviour in the form of Lady Helen Hamlyn, who helped restore the property and grace it with her collection of art and antiques. The skill and commitment of CHH Earth to undertake managing it. And the dedicated staff, lead by maître d’hotel Milton.

I asked Milton about the flooding in this region while we were standing on the front lawn. “The water rose to here, above the jetty, to the second step. I had to untie the boat from the jetty and tie it to the tamarind tree on the lawn,” he explained.

Luckily for Chittoor Kottaram, the water did not reach the buildings. But many people in the region were evacuated, including Milton and his family, as the flood waters rose and turned the rivers and canals of the Backwaters into what was essentially a big lake. After a few days, the flood waters receded, and the Backwaters returned to normal. It took longer for the people to recover. There was a lot of cleaning and repair work to be done.

We stayed three days in secluded luxury at Chittoor Kottaram and when we were leaving, Milton said to us, “You are part of the CGH Earth family” and I felt it. I saw this beautiful destination through moist eyes as I left, and vowed to return.

On the Kumarakom Backwaters, Kerala. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

After the floods

Everyone in Kerala we met had stories of the August 2018 floods to tell. When asked, they are still fresh for the telling, and they were showcased in many of the exhibits at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2019.

There are stories of how people experienced and coped with the floods, and also how they persevered and recovered. We heard harrowing stories of water entering people’s homes, heroic stories of fishermen saving people,..

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CGH Earth Chittoor Kottaram. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Showcasing CGH Earth Kerala Hotels and Resorts on a 10-day trip

In January 2019, photographer Andrew Adams and I travelled in Kerala for 10 days with CGH Earth. The idea was to visit five different CGH Earth Kerala hotels and resorts, located in five different landscapes of Kerala, and to showcase the current tourism conditions. The world heard about the devastating floods of August 2018, but not about the recovery, and return to normal. This is part 1 of a two-part series on our journey.

Kerala is often called “God’s own country.” It’s a beautiful, tropical state in South India with palm-tree lined beaches, an extensive system of Backwaters, rolling green hills, wildlife and tiger reserves, and much, much more. Kerala is a soft landing for first time visitors to India, and a gentle respite from some of the more hectic parts of the country. There’s a lot to see and do all over the state. This post is a suggested itinerary based on a 10-day trip I took with photographer Andrew Adams to five Kerala hotels and resorts managed by CGH Earth.

CGH Earth is a local company, based in Fort Cochin / Kochi, Kerala, that runs about 19 hotels and resorts in South India – most of which are in Kerala. CGH stands for “clean green healthy” and these principles help to steer their operations. The company is a pioneer in the field of creating sustainable tourism options and sophisticated wellness retreats.

We visited five Kerala hotels. We started at Marari Beach Resort on the Arabian Sea coast, then drove up into the cool, fragrant Cardamom Hills to visit Spice Village in Thekkady – and Periyar Tiger Reserve. Then, we drove back down to the Backwaters of Kumarakom to stay at legendary Coconut Lagoon before heading into the historic port city of Fort Cochin / Kochi and the iconic Brunton Boatyard hotel. Our final stop was the show-stopper: we were the only guests at a private, royal retreat – the former palace of an erstwhile king – called Chittoor Kottaram. Read on to discover these special properties and this ideal itinerary for tasting the best of Kerala. I’ve highlighted my Three Top Things about each property and why you should go!

Three Top Things about Marari Beach Resort

CGH Earth Marari Beach Resort. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Fishing village and heritage buildings

Marari Beach Resort was inspired by a local fishing village and is spread across 35 acres of land. It has a long beachfront to match, from where you can swim (of course), watch the fishing boats come and go, and see magnificent sunsets. As you wander the property on your own, or in the presence of an in-house naturalist, you can discover things like a thatched roof heritage building that has been beautifully restored and is now used as a clubhouse and bar, the authentic Ayurvedic centre, and a lot of glorious birds, including a resident peacock population. At Marari Beach Resort, you have the opportunity of staying in a very comfortable cottage while getting a feel for the sea side culture of Kerala.

Organic garden and field kitchen

For me, one of the highlights of our visit to Marari Beach Resort was a guided tour with in-house naturalist. He opened our eyes to the rich diversity of the of the property, from flowers, to birds, to insects. He showed us butterfly eggs and where pepper and other spices grow, and told us about all the flora and fauna of the region. He also took us to the very large organic garden and field kitchen. Here, we discovered that much of the herbs, spices, and produce used in the kitchens at Marari Beach Resort are grown right on the property. Guests can help pick the produce and make an al fresco dinner that is as fresh as fresh can be. We had a spicy vegetable soup and a stir fry made of eggplant and other vegetables, right from the garden.

Kerala hotels are all about Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation

Marari Beach Resort place feels very natural, not artificial, and my word for this place is RELAX. The entire place invites you to spread out, and relax, from the expansive lawns to the wood verandahs, from the hammocks strung between palm trees to the refreshing pool. Marari Beach is one of the most relaxing Kerala hotels I have ever visited (and that says a lot!)

Three Top Things about Spice Village

CGH Earth Spice Village. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

The air was filled with spices!

Spice Village is in Thekkady, among the Western Ghats. This highland region is romantically known as The Cardamom Hills as it’s an area ideally suited to growing spices – as well as coffee, tea, fruit, and many other delectable things. My first morning at Spice Village, I woke up in a cool and misty forest, and walked in a spice garden lush with tropical flowers, sweet fruit, and tangy spices. Heavenly.

Like all CGH Earth properties, Spice Village was designed, built, and organized around the local culture and it is appropriately named – here, spices like pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, tamarind, and nutmeg grow in profusion. Also, coffee, tea, bananas, lemons, papaya, and much, much more.

Spice Village was inspired by the local spice harvesting culture and tribal communities. The cottages are thatched with elephant grass — a skill that had almost disappeared. Spices and tea grow naturally on the 12-acre property, plus there’s an organic garden, vermi composting, and all kinds of sustainability initiatives. Even the cuisines and beverages are locally infused. The 50 Mile Restaurant only serves food sourced from within 50 miles, the specialty cocktail is made with spice leaves, and only local tea and coffee are served — the tea with ginger, cardamom, and milk.

Tigers, tamarind, and tea

Wildlife, spices, and tea are three things that Spice Village showcases. In-house tea specialist Francis formerly worked at a tea plantation and he is one of the treasures of Spice Village. Francis showed me how to pluck, dry, and roast tea using a hot grill. It took all of about 15 minutes, we drank the resulting beverage, and it was lovely. I couldn’t believe I made my own tea!

The in-house naturalists at Spice Village can be found in the Tiger Club, a dim, wood-panelled room filled with books, photos, and other materials all about the local flora and fauna. When I walked in, it was love at first sight. This is where guests can get all the information they need about Periyar Tiger Reserve. The room evokes a bygone era of intrepid explorers and pristine forests filled with lush vegetation and wild animals. From here, the naturalists will take you on a nature walk through the property, to a local spice plantation, up to sunset point, or into Periyar.

The bygone era feeling of Spice Village is reinforced in the Woodhouse, a bar and billiards room with furnishings, antique artefacts, vintage photographs, and an ambience that preserves the past. It was built on the exact spot where AW Woods, the first ranger at Periyar Game Sanctuary, lived. Apparently, bar was named after him because he was a “great patron of spirits.” This is THE ideal place to have a gin-and-tonic – the go-to drink for colonists in India and Africa because the quinine in tonic water was said to prevent malaria.

Ayurveda Centre

Ayurveda is the “science of life,” the traditional and holistic approach to healthcare that has been practiced in India since time immemorial. Ayurveda relies heavily on medicines made of herbs, spices, and other natural ingredients. At Spice Village, a spacious and beautifully designed Ayurveda Centre showcases the healthcare system’s connection to nature and provides treatments administered by an highly experienced Ayurvedic doctor and well-trained staff. Ayurveda is something that CGH Earth takes very seriously. I can easily image taking treatments here, and returning to your cottage to sip tea on the verandah and soak up the highland atmosphere. A lot of Kerala hotels have Ayurvedic centres, but few are as highly rated, professional, and reliable as those at CGH Earth.

Three Top Things about Coconut Lagoon

CGH Earth Coconut Lagoon. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Preservation of culture

A microcosm of Kerala’s Backwaters culture. That’s the best way to describe Coconut Lagoon in Kumarakom. As we travelled through Kerala with CGH Earth, we found that the company’s promise of giving guests not just a hotel stay, but an experience, is certainly true. At Coconut Lagoon, you get an authentic experience of the Backwaters, in a comfortable and naturally luxurious setting. Pioneer of sustainable tourism Jose Dominic, and his team, set up Coconut Lagoon  in 1993 by buying up traditional Kerala Houses – houses that were slated for demolition. It was designed to showcase the unique culture of the Backwaters

The experience at Coconut Lagoon is: Graceful buildings carved of rich, dark teak. Vibrant green lawns criss-crossed with channels and waterways. Soaring palm trees that sway in the breeze as Lake Vambanad changes colour according to the movement of clouds. A menu that presents authentic flavours and dishes, full of local herbs and spices. Local musicians play table and flute, and a local woman paddles a boat in every afternoon to serve chai and snacks.

Preservation of environment

Coconut Lagoon is not just charming, it’s also a zero-waste resort. They reuse or recycle virtually everything, such as making biogas from food waste and collecting rain water for use in the swimming pool (after filtration). We had a behind-the-scenes tour of Coconut Lagoon and it is seriously just as impressive as the beauty and luxury guests experience.

The Backwaters is a fragile ecosystem, and the company’s commitment to sustainability is part of the way in which they protect this ecosystem. For example, Coconut Lagoon may be the only resort in the world that is helping to protect a rare breed of cow. The Vechoor cow is the smallest breed of cow in the world, but it produces a large volume of milk that Ayurvedic practitioners feel is medicinal in value. The wander freely on the property are were whisked to safety during the flooding.

This is a Kerala hotel with a unique and special ambience

Here, people live close to nature, close to the many water bodies that cut through the low-lying region. Their cuisine is notable for the liberal use of rice, fish, seafood, and of course the spices of Kerala, including the fiery chillies.

Coconut Lagoon is a watery place, dotted with small bridges that connect the tiny islands that make up the property. There’s much to explore here. I estimate it would take weeks to discover all the special places — like the butterfly garden, sunset point, bird watching hut and having afternoon tea from a local boat.

Three Top Things about Brunton Boatyard

CGH Earth Brunton Boatyard. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Colonial history captured

Our fourth stop was a stay at the Brunton Boatyard the historic trading port of Fort Cochin on the Malabar Coast, where the Backwaters meet the Arabian Sea. Like all CGH Earth hotels, Brunton Boatyard was designed to showcase the locality. The hotel property was once the site of a successful boat-building company. CGH Earth kept the name, Brunton Boatyard, but hired an architect steeped in the history of Fort Cochin to design a Dutch colonial-style building that “looks as though it was always here,” according to hotel manager Manoj Nair.

The hotel is almost a museum of history. Old maps and photos of historically important figures, like explorer Vasco da Game, line the walls, and much of the furniture and decor is antique — up to and including the pankas that hang from the expansive and elegant lobby. This is one of my favourite hotel lobbies ever, and it made me feel more elegant and graceful just walking through it!

Celebration of local cuisine

Two of the hotel restaurants are named History and Armoury, to honour the historical ambience. The cuisine is also inspired by historical dishes, especially in the fine dining room History, where the menu – which reads like a book of stories— details the history of each dish. Vypeen Crab Soup was one of my favourite dishes. As the menu recounts, the chef found these crabs among the mangroves on the island directly across from the hotel and flavoured them with star anise. Many of the dishes evoke the colonial past such as Dak Bungalow Slow Roast Chicken, First Class Railway Mutton Curry, and a Tiffin Meal.

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea

Fort Cochin was an important stop on the Spice Route, a hub for the trade of spices, tea, and coffee, and a prized gem for European colonists. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the English colonized Fort Cochin, so it’s a small city packed with history.

Brunton Boatyard is located bang on the coast, in the middle of the very busy trading port. Most of the rooms are sea-facing, with spacious balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows. From here, you can watch vessels of every size, from the tiny wooden canoes of local fishermen to massive ocean-going freighters, as they ply the waters of the harbour.

Three Top Things about Chittoor Kottaram

CGH Earth Chittoor Kottaram. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography

Live like a King (or Queen)

How would you like a palace all to yourself? Chittoor Kottaram was the last stop on our journey through Kerala with CGH Earth and it’s a show-stopper. How often do you get to stay in a royal residence, all by yourself? Chittoor Kottaram is a single-key heritage mansion, hiding in a secluded cove in Chittoor, a residential neighbourhood on the Backwaters near Cochin. It’s a small but exceedingly elegant palace built by the Raja of Cochin in the early 19th century. The palace was lovingly restored by owner Lady Helen Hamlyn, who also placed within it a precious collection of Indian art, and is managed by CGH Earth. You book the entire palace, three bedrooms, and get a staff of four warm and highly professional people who take care of your every need. We literally didn’t want to leave.

Intoxicating atmosphere

To step through the graceful gate is to step into a dream world of magnificent 200-year-old architecture, antique furniture and artefacts, all steeped in the lush greenery of the Backwaters. Time does indeed seem to stand still here among the understated grandeur of Chittoor Kottaram, and a languid rhythm takes over. I slept in a stunning room designed for a King. Bathed in a private pool sunk into the tropical garden, where Brahminy kites fly overhead and butterflies flutter. Relaxed on a Backwaters-facing verandah watching an incredible profusion of birds. And ate delectable, authentic cuisine that includes fresh fish from the Backwaters, lovingly cooked and served in a pavilion by the water or on the gracious verandah. At Chittoor Kottaram, you are literally living a cultural legacy.

A royal standard of service 

Everything about Chittoor Kottaram, including the warm and attentive service and the flavourful, authentic cuisine, is superb. The staff is directed by maître d Milton, whose warm personality and local knowledge adds charm to the experience. Food is cooked fresh and to order. Your preferences are remembered, and after one day in residence, you feel enveloped in a standard of service that is almost unheard or even undreamt of. If you want to feel like royalty …. this is the place …

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CGH Earth Chittoor Kottaram. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography
CGH Earth Brunton Boatyard. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography
CGH Earth Brunton Boatyard. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography
CGH Earth Brunton Boatyard. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography
CGH Earth Brunton Boatyard. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography
CGH Earth Brunton Boatyard. Photo credit: Andrew Adams Photography
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Dervla Murphy at home in her kitchen in Lismore, Ireland

Dervla Murphy interview: Adventurous women series

WOMEN AND ADVENTURE. Those are two words that I didn’t hear a lot growing up. I was born at a time when the “women’s movement” was just starting, and women were largely hampered by very restrictive societal roles. But not all. There have always been adventurous women who swam against the tide, such as the female explorers I wrote about it this post. And Mirabai, a 16th century poet-saint in India. I wrote a five-part series about her after walking in her footsteps on the Mirabai Expedition.

So when I was approached to be part of the Women in Capes campaign, by Expedia Singapore, I was thrilled and honoured to be considered an inspiring female traveller. I remembered that when I was five years old, I wanted to be Micky Mouse. I pinned a towel to my shoulders as a pretend cape. This was at the time my Mother said I could be anything I wanted. So I wished as hard as I could to be Mighty Mouse!

In a way, I got my wish. I got to be what I wanted, a traveller and travel writer. And as such, I also get to meet other inspiring women. Like Dervla Murphy.

From Dublin to Delhi by bike

In 1963, at the age of 32, Dervla got on her bicycle, Roz, and rode from Dublin to Delhi. She wrote a rollicking page-turner about her adventures called Full Tilt, which was published in 1965.

Dervla Murphy welcoming me to her home

The tale is tall, with stories about fending off wolves and men with her pistol, braving blizzards and snakes, and suffering accidents and broken bones. I counted about four times she faced mortal danger. But of course it’s also full of insight, and lyrical passages about the beauty she found, the connection she felt with Afghanistan, a country she loved, and the wonder and joy of someone having a big adventure, and discovering the world for the first time.

Published in 1965, it was the first of about 40 books of travel adventures she’s written. Full Tilt was the one that really spoke to me, perhaps because I related to finally being released for adventure and diving into the deep end of the pool. Though what I did was not nearly as ambitious, it was still a big jump for me to embark on a six-month journey across India when I was 45, having never really travelled, and in the throes of recovering from intractable grief.

When I was starting out as a travel writer about nine years ago, I read Full Tilt and became an avid Dervla Murphy fan (read my review of Full Tilt here). I started reading her other travel books, especially the ones that took place in India. So when I went to Ireland several years ago, I reached out to her publisher and arranged to meet and interview her, in her eccentric home in a former market, in Lismore, County Waterford.

Further reading on Breathedreamgo

The number one question I had on my mind when preparing for my interview with Dervla Murphy was about overcoming fear. I could barely conceive of a young woman, who had never been out of Europe, undertaking such an incredible journey.

All I could think about, while driving to Lismore to interview her was: how did she overcome the fear, and get up the courage, to undertake such a perilous journey?

But Dervla’s answer to my question about fear surprised me, and I’ve thought of it many times since that day.

Home of adventure travel writer Dervla Murphy

Fear and courage for female travellers

As I ineptly steered my rental car along south Ireland’s narrow roads to reach the small town of Lismore, I kept thinking about fear and courage. And about her journeys, both personal and professional.

Dervla was always an avid cyclist, but she had been confined to her native Ireland all her adult life due to aging and unwell parents.

Adventure travel writer Dervla Murphy at home

“For my tenth birthday my parents gave me a second-hand bicycle and Pappa [her grandfather] sent me a second hand atlas. Already I was an enthusiastic cyclist, though I had never before owned a bicycle, and soon after my birthday I resolved to cycle to India one day. I have never forgotten the exact spot, on a steep hill near Lismore, where this decision was made. Half-way up I rather proudly looked at my legs, slowly pushing the pedals around, and the thought came “If I went on doing this for long enough I could get to India.”

Dervla’s parents died when she was in her very early 30s. After they died, and she was free from obligation, she put her soul in a crossbow and fired. A year later, armed with a pistol and a man’s bicycle named Roz, she set out on her journey to cycle from Dublin to Delhi.

I drove over the River Blackwater, passed Lismore Castle, reached the centre of Lismore town in one piece, and found a parking spot. I had Dervla’s number and called her, and she said she would come and meet me at the car. And there she was, striding towards me in an over-sized sweater, full of warmth and vigour, as she motioned to follow her. We walked up an unremarkable lane that I would never have noticed, through an iron gate in an old stone wall topped with flowers and foliage, and into her eccentric home.

Dervla lives in what used to be the Lismore market, a collection of old stone buildings around an open courtyard. You have to go outside to get from room to room. Her study, with the walls lined floor-to-ceiling with books, is said to date from the 17th century. Dogs and cats have the run of the place, which has a homely, ramshackle, and surprisingly private feel to it. And though it would not be comfortable for most people, she loves it, despite being 82 at the time of the interview. (She was born November 28, 1931.)

Lismore Castle overlooks the small town in Ireland

We sat down at the table, also piled with books and papers, and the first thing she did was offer me a beer. One of those thick, dark stouts they like so much in Ireland. I declined the beer, but accepted tea, which she made in her small kitchen. As I looked around, I saw many signs of a life well lived. Cards, invitations, and letters scattered all over the overflowing bookshelves, photographs of her daughter Rachel are framed on the walls, and a Tibetan flag draped over her typewriter. Since the time of Full Tilt, Dervla has been a supporter of the Tibetan cause, and she volunteered with the Tibetan community in India.

Dervla and I spent the next hour or two chatting, drinking beer (her) and tea (me) about travelling, writing, and navigating the world as a single, motherless woman. As we talked, I realized we have a lot in common – including making India the destination of our first real journey – and it occurred to me that Dervla is exactly one year and four days younger than my Mother. Losing my Mother when I was 37 was the catalyst for me to become a traveller and writer.

But there the similarities end, for I have never had an adventure like Full Tilt, and we circled back to my reason for being there. I cannot imagine having that much courage. Didn’t she feel afraid? How did she overcome the fear?

Naaahhhhh,” she says, drawing out the sound for emphasis. “It doesn’t take courage. It takes curiosity.”

Her answer surprised me, to say the least. I never looked at it that way. But what about advice for women travelling solo?

“I would say that, within reason, there is no reason to be afraid. If you take reasonable precautions, I don’t see why any woman shouldn’t travel wherever she likes, alone. What’s the problem?

“If you feel confident, and you trust people, that forms your attitude – and people realize they’re being trusted, and they respond to that by treating you well.”

Dervla Murphy - YouTube

Curiosity and trust. I thought about these words, her mantra for travel, as I waved goodbye and continued on my drive towards Cork, and the home of my Irish ancestors. I was in Ireland for the first time, to “walk the ground” of my ancestors, as my genealogist put it.

As I drove out of town, I realized the Blackwater River that ran through Lismore also ran through my ancestral village, Castletownroche in Cork. I couldn’t help but marvel at all the coincidences that brought me here, and all the similarities between Dervla and myself.

And I felt a sense of deep calm, a profound inner peace, that all the stars do indeed align sometimes and give us exactly what we need. For me, travelling to meet Dervla Murphy in Lismore was like a pilgrimage, a journey to a holy mountain to seek the wisdom of a guru. For I’ve thought of her words many times sense, and let them guide me, too, as I travel.

Dervla Murphy at her home in Lismore, Ireland

If you enjoyed this post, you can…. Sign up to The Travel Newsletter in the sidebar and follow Breathedreamgo on all social media platforms including Instagram, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Thank you!

Thank you for reading. Please visit Breathedreamgo or stop by my Facebook page at Breathedreamgo.

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Boating on the Narmada River with my Swissgear backpack in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India

Packing anxiety, top packing tips & best carry on luggage

YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED to learn I have packing anxiety. So when Swissgear Canada contacted me about taking their luggage with me on the road in India, I was presented with both an opportunity and a dilemma. I didn’t want to mess with my system due to the anxiety it might cause, and I didn’t know if the luggage would be durable enough for the rigours of travel in India. But of course who wouldn’t want to receive an array of smart new luggage! They gave me a suitcase set and travel bags that included a small carry on suitcase, two backpacks, a toiletries bag, and a wallet (listed below with links to the Swissgear website).

Luckily, after trying them while travelling in India to Rishikesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Kerala, I can honestly say they are some of the best travel bags, and the best carry on luggage, I’ve used in India. And I managed to overcome my anxiety by developing a new system. Read on to find out how I deal with packing anxiety and using my new lightweight luggage.

  • Why lightweight suitcases are essential
  • Travel packing tips
  • Coping with packing anxiety
  • Learning to travel with carry on luggage only
  • Why I like my Swissgear luggage set

Early morning cycling in Kochi, Kerala with my roomy Swissgear laptop backpack

Lightweight suitcases are key

Swissgear suitcases, luggage, and backpacks are affordable and lightweight, which makes them ideal for travel in a challenging destination like India. The baggage allowance for domestic air travel in India is 15 kilograms in economy class – so you need lightweight suitcases. Otherwise, the suitcase itself will take up a significant portion of your baggage allowance. My Swissgear carry on spinner is just 3 kilograms.

My only concern about the Swissgear suitcase set was durability. India is tough on luggage (as well as travellers)! My small suitcase and other travel bags are constantly thrown onto train luggage racks, into compartments, and down conveyor belts. They are often man-handled by porters and staff. Believe, me, I put this luggage through its paces.

Overall, the luggage took the challenging conditions very well, and I discovered some specific benefits to using Swissgear, which are outlined below. But first … packing tips!

Laying everything out before packing helps to manage my packing anxiety

Travel bag packing tips to manage anxiety

I basically consider myself a professional traveller, since I do it so often, and for my livelihood as a travel journalist and blogger. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have packing anxiety. I worry about whether I am taking the right stuff, enough or two much, what I will forget, if I will be able to cram it all back in … So, to help me cope, packing has become ritualized and luggage is important — it is one of the tools of my trade. I don’t take any of it lightly.

I need to be able to take what I need — whether it’s electronics gear, climate or activity specific clothing, or medicines needed for travel in India — and have it arrive in good condition, in as little luggage as possible. I try and travel light, usually carry on, when I’m travelling domestically and sometimes internationally.

I’ve developed some habits, routines, and traditions around packing, and I will share some of my best practices below, along with my favourite things about the Swissgear luggage.

  1. Be prepared. I start thinking about what I need to pack 3-7 days before the trip, to make sure I have everything I need, and to give me time to buy things, get things washed or dry cleaned, etc.
  2. Similars. Put everything in piles of similar before packing. This works really well in hotel rooms – I almost never forget anything because of this system. It also works well when you’re packing at home. You can see at a glance if you have too many t-shirts or toothbrushes or whatever.
  3. Compression sacs. Use compression sacs to pack clothes. I used to buy expensive Eagle Creek compression sacs, now I just get the cheaper Ziploc version, which work just as well. Not only can you take more clothes, but they are protected from moisture and accidental spills.
  4. Travel size toiletries. Travel size toiletries are almost always the way to go. Except for specialized products, you can get almost everything wherever you go nowadays. I use a small, hanging toiletries bag filled with travel sized products. I use this when I travel, and keep the full-sized products at home. I use the Swissgear toiletries bag for makeup, jewelry, and miscellaneous things like vitamins and eyeglasses
  5. Squishable shoes. Shoes take up a lot of room, so I am always on the lookout for shoes that compress. Skechers is my go-to brand for walking shoes and sandals: they are comfortable, affordable, offer a lot of support, and they compress down for packing. Plus, I throw in flip-flops and a pair of blingy Indian sandals. They pack very flat.
  6. Carry on magic. Being able to master the art of travelling carry on only is really worth the effort. It does take some strategic planning and discipline. It’s like everything else: once you make the decision, you can make it work.

Working on the road can be challenging! At Coconut Lagoon, Kerala with my office in my Swissgear laptop backpack

I found travelling with the Swissgear spinner carry on and laptop backpack made it relatively easy. Here’s what I did:

  • Packing: Laid out my clothes in outfits, making sure I wasn’t taking anything extraneous. Compressed clothes into two compression sacs.
  • Carry on spinner: After putting the compression sacs into my suitcase, I stuffed shoes around the sides and laid my toiletries bags (I travel with two) on top. Paperwork like notebooks and books went into the outside pocket.
  • Laptop backpack: My 13” Macbook Pro laptop, a small bag containing computer and phone peripherals, and everything that would go into a purse, such as my Swissgear RFID wallet, went into the backpack. It’s an ideal size, not too big or too small, with a roomy expandable inner pocket that can also hold a shawl or sweater. It also has outside pockets and a place for a water bottle.
The Swissgear luggage I am using

Here are some links, if you want to learn more about them.

From top left to right: carry on spinner, laptop backpack, toiletries bag, tablet backpack

Things I liked about the Swissgear luggage
  1. Spinner wheels. I was unsure at first, but I ended up really liking the carry-on spinner’s four-wheel design. It provides a solid base for perching other bags on top and gives you more options for pushing or dragging the bag.
  2. Lightweight backpack. The tablet backpack weighs almost nothing (0.6 lbs). Yet it can carry a lot of stuff. I used it daily for walks, shopping, almost everything. It can also fold up quite small for packing.
  3. Slim wallet. The RFID wallet is very slim, yet is holds all my cards, my passport, money, extra photos – everything I need for travel. It doesn’t take up a lot of space, but it DOES provide a lot of protection because it prevents identity theft.
  4. Versatile toiletries bag. The toiletries bag is in some ways my favourite piece. It’s smart-looking, and is very versatile. I’ve used it to carry makeup, bling, jewelry, toiletries, all kinds of things.
  5. Expandable laptop backpack. For travelling with carry on only, the laptop backpack is key. It is highly expandable and can literally hold my entire portable office – my 13” Macbook Pro, plus peripherals, cables, iPhone camera accessories, notebooks, pens, files. The lot.
NOTE: This post was brought to you in part by Swissgear. However, as always, my opinions and experiences are my own, and I keep the needs of my readers firmly in mind. #sponsored #Swissgearlife

At home in Rishikesh, I use my Swissgear tablet backpack almost daily

If you enjoyed this post, you can…. Sign up to The Travel Newsletter in the sidebar and follow Breathedreamgo on all social media platforms including Instagram, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Thank you! If you are interested in travel in India … Let me know if you want any help with itinerary planning, or booking. I work with a number of highly recommended companies. Plus, I offer several “India for Beginners” custom itineraries.

Thank you for reading. Please visit Breathedreamgo or stop by my Facebook page at Breathedreamgo.

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MindBodyColleen’s Instagram photo of her doing Yoga pose at City Palace in Jaipur

Or: How NOT to write about travel in India

IN THE PAST couple of weeks, I’ve seen a couple of social media posts go viral in India. One was mine. I tweeted about a very positive experience I had on the overnight Narmada Express Train in Madhya Pradesh, and India’s Minister of Railways, Piyush Goyal, first retweeted it — to his 4.7 million followers — and then wrote a dedicated tweet about my journeys and my blog. The tweet had hundreds of comments, almost unanimously positive.

I think this tweet went viral because a good news travel story from a foreigner in India made for refreshing reading, amidst the usually negative news. And this was corroborated by an article in Rightlog India about my viral tweet.

The author of the Rightlog article, Shubham Singh, wrote: “Indians are famous for their hospitality because they live by the principle ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ which simply means ‘guest is equivalent to God.’ Here guests are treated with utmost care and with extreme respect.  The Government of India also adopted the same tagline for an advertising campaign on ‘Incredible India’ to spread awareness amongst Indians about tourists and tourism places. Every year lakhs of foreign tourists visit India because it offers rich a cultural experience to tourists. Most of the tourists who visit India leave the country with a positive image of the country, but Indian media, as well as foreign media, choose to highlight and even create news that paints our country in a bad light. Positive stories about India like the one narrated by Mariellen Ward don’t find any space in any mainstream media outlet.”

More recently, @smol on Twitter (Anika Kokatayy) tweeted about an Instagram post written by MindBodyColleen, an American woman who had 50,000+ IG followers, and who was visiting Jaipur, India. Smol tweeted: “I need to cleanse my eyes after reading the nonsense I just read … and I need to share it with y’all because this woman thinks Indians can’t afford smart phones and aren’t smart enough to work one.” Here’s the Instagram post, below, now deleted. Smol’s tweet went viral, too, and unleashed a torrent of anger towards the Instagrammer.

A cautionary tale

I suppose it was bound to happen. The easy access to world travel and the low barriers to entry to becoming a travel blogger / influencer / digital storyteller mean there are people travelling the world, and posting about their travels online, without any real knowledge or understanding of the culture they’re in. And of course the people from that culture, the locals, are reading those posts and, well … you have the perfect storm. And that’s what happened in the case of the MindBodyColleen tweet.

Apparently, the anger and hostility directed at Colleen for this Instagram story — described by people on my Facebook page as insensitive, ignorant, racist, and stupid — was so intense, Colleen was forced to shut down her Instagram account. Her website content, too, was replaced by a one-page “apology.” Again, the consensus among my Facebook friends is that it was not an apology at all, and she has not learned from this experience. The entire website has gone offline now.

So, I wrote Colleen a letter, which I wanted to send to her. But since she is not reachable online, I am sharing it here. I think it’s important that people realize cultural sensitivity, respect, and being a responsible traveller cannot be replaced by the ability to take pretty photos as you travel. Likewise, the ability to do an advanced Yoga pose does not mean you know anything about Yoga. As my colleague Rishabh Shah said on Facebook, “there’s a responsibility that comes with being an influencer.” I couldn’t agree more.

I hope she reads it. And I hope it’s a wake up call to others who see the world, and the people in it, as simply a backdrop for their Instagram worthy images.

Dear Colleen,

I’ve been following the story of your Instagram post about losing your phone in Jaipur as I am a travel blogger in India (originally from Canada). I know your post received a lot of negative feedback, and by all accounts, some of it was harsh.

As I know India well, I was not surprised by the reaction. India is a post-colonial country, and Indians are well aware the western media often portrays the country in a negative light. They are understandably sensitive to commentary that aligns with these negative stereotypes.

I have been blogging in India since 2005, so I have had a lot of time to learn about India and Indian culture, and write about my travels in a fair and respectful manner. I’m also a long-time Yoga student (more than 25 years), and my Yoga studies have also helped me learn about the culture. In fact, I feel that travel in India is like a Yoga practice: it teaches patience, acceptance, trust – and perhaps most of all, self-awareness.

When I first came to India, on a six-month trip in 2005, I came as a seeker. I was trying to recover from grief and depression over my Mother’s sudden death and I came to India with a wounded heart. I opened myself up to what I now call “the magic of India,” and saw everything that happened as a teacher. It was with this attitude of openness, humility, and respect that I travelled in India, and wrote about my travels.

I recovered from depression, restarted my life, and began a new career as a travel writer and blogger – making me one of the first travel bloggers in India. I launched my professional blog Breathedreamgo in 2009 and I’ve been actively blogging about India and posting to social media since then.

The reason I am writing to you is that I love India and all that it has given to me. I love the lessons I have learned here, though some of them have been very difficult. I believe that India is above all a teacher, and I hope that you will see what happened this way too, in time if not now.

I don’t support angry or hateful reactions on social media, and I’m sorry you had to experience them. However, I also hope the intensity of the reaction will inspire you to understand it, and see how your words provoked it.

Personally, I have become very committed to the principles of responsible travel, which includes showing cultural respect, and understanding that travel is a privilege. When you are travelling in another country, you are a guest. You are there at their discretion.

Even though I spend most of my time in India, I am always aware that I am a guest in this country, and behave accordingly. And my own experience is that when you show Indians respect, they respond with an incredible amount of warmth, generosity, helpfulness, and friendship.

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in India, and I’ve learned to count on the goodness of Indian people. I was also not at all surprised that you got your phone back, or that so many people helped you.

None of this surprised me.

The only thing that surprised me was that you didn’t see it. You didn’t see the helpfulness or kindness of the people in Jaipur. I don’t know how or why you missed it. But I hope one day you will see it.

Take care,

Mariellen

Safe travels and have fun! Let me know if you want any help with itinerary planning, or booking. I work with a number of highly recommended companies. Plus, I offer several “India for Beginners” custom itineraries. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up to The Travel Newsletter in the sidebar and follow Breathedreamgo on all social media platforms including Instagram, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Thank you!

Thank you for reading. Please visit Breathedreamgo or stop by my Facebook page at Breathedreamgo.

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Gorgeous Khajuraho glows with sublime beauty at sunset

Madhya Pradesh tourism is on the rise with treasures like the Khajuraho Temples, Kanha National Park, Maheshwar, and Gwalior

Khajuraho Temples, Kanha National Park, Bandhavgarh National Park, Maheshwar, Gwalior Fort, Mandu, and Bhopal are just some of the incredible treasures of Madhya Pradesh. Situated right in the centre of India, the heart of India, this state is one of the most interesting places to visit in India.

For the fifth time in two years, I travelled to Madhya Pradesh to attend AdventureNEXT India (hosted by the ATTA, MP Tourism, and the ATOAI). The conference was in Bhopal, a city I have come to admire, and included a pre-adventure tour that explored places along the Narmada River. The Narmada River Heritage Trail was organized by Renok Adventures, and they did a great job. I also spent four days exploring Bandhavgarh National Park, going on wildlife and tiger safaris, and enjoying the hospitality of Pugdundee Safaris Kings Lodge.

Madhya Pradesh tourism is on the rise, due to the fact there are three UNESCO World Heritage sites, some of the best tiger reserves in India, the most beautiful temples and forts, fascinating and historical cities like Bhopal, Gwalior, and Indore, and greenery – MP still has about 40% forest cover and some of the best national parks and tiger reserves in India.  These are some of the best places to visit in MP, Madhya Pradesh, but really … I am only scratching the surface of one of my favourite states in India.

All ready for a sunset boat cruise on the Narmada River at Maheshwar, with my Swissgear backpack by my side.

On this trip I was trying out my new SWISSGEAR luggage and putting it through its paces. I’m now an ambassador for Swissgear, so I was hoping the luggage wouldn’t fail me — India is particularly hard on luggage, and my carry-on spinner was thrown around a lot by baggage handlers. More about my luggage below, at the end of the post, but suffice to say I was literally never without my Swissgear backpack.

So here they are, some of the best tourist places to visit in Madhya Pradesh based on my travels there over the past two years.

  • Khajuraho Temples
  • Kanha National Park
  • Bandhavgarh National Park
  • Maheshwar
  • Gwalior Fort
  • Mandu
  • Bhopal
  • What you need to know
  • How to get there
  • Best time to visit
  • Where to stay

Full moon over beautiful Khajuraho

Khajuraho Temples

Eternity carved in stone is the best way I can think of to describe the temples of Khajuraho. Many consider them to be the finest temples in India in terms of both the sophistication of the architecture and the quality of the carvings. I’m not an expert, but I can tell you that I was transported. The temples exceeded all of my expectations and I consider them to be among the top wonders of India, equalling the Taj Mahal, Hampi, Fatehpur Sikri and others. The best temples are in the Western Group of Monuments, which requires an entrance fee. There is also a sound and light show here each evening that is worth seeing.

Khajuraho is of course famous for the “erotic” carvings that form part of the art on several of the temples. There are numerous explanations for their presence. Some think they illustrate the Kama Sutra. Personally, I liked what my guide, Govind, said about them. He’s been working as a guide at Khajuraho for 20 years. He said the figures — even in wild, acrobatic and bestial couplings — are neither erotic nor obscene. He said they are Mithuna figures and they represent divine love, the union of Shiva (male) and Shakti (female) energies. They are among thousands of carvings of people engaged in various acts of life such as fighting, dancing, eating, hunting. Devotees visiting the temples were to reflect on all aspects of life as they did their rounds and rise above them in spiritual ecstasy.

Not only do I love the Khajuraho Group of Monuments, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, I also love the town of Khajuraho. Except for the assertive touts and rickshaw drivers who ply the road in front the Western Group of Monuments, it’s a very charming and laid-back small town. I could spend the entire day upstairs at the Raja Café, which forms a kind of treehouse, overlooking the pedestrian road that runs along the Western Group of Monuments. Food is good at the Raja Cafe, too!

What you need to know: The temples are open sunrise to sunset. There is an entrance charge for the Western Group of Temples (INR 500 for foreigner tourists, INR 30 for locals). You can watch the spectacular Sound and Light show in the Western Group of Temples after sunset, for a separate fee.

How to get there: You can fly directly to Khajuraho from Delhi or Varanasi or take a train.

Best time to visit: Madhya Pradesh gets hot, so anytime between October and March would be ideal.

Where to stay: For the budget conscious, Zostel has a lovely hostel in a prime location. At the higher end, you can’t beat The Lalit with view of the Western Group of Temples right from some of the rooms and the swimming pool.

Barasingha hard-ground swamp deer at Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve

Kanha National Park is one of my favourite places in India. It’s not only a great place for wildlife and tiger sightings, it’s a spectacularly beautiful park that is also extremely well-managed. I’ve been to Kanha several times, and I never tire of getting up before dawn to go for the morning safari. No matter what happens, when those park gates open, you know you are going to have a wonderful morning. There’s the thrill of the chase, of course, as your guide and naturalist attempt to show you a tiger. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t see one. There is so much else to see.

Kanha is a bird lover’s paradise, and it’s also full of animals such as chital, gaur, dhole, jackals, sloth bears, and the magnificent barasingha. The barasingha hard-ground swamp deer was almost extinct until Kanha organized a captive breeding program. Now you can see large herds of them grazing in the park’s gorgeous meadows.

Kanha is one of the busiest and most-sought after national parks and tiger reserves in India, and you have to book well in advance (120 days or more) to secure a Gypsy (jeep) booking during high season, from December until May. Last year, the entire month of March was sold out. At 940 square kilometres in the core zone, and 1,009 square kilometres including the buffer zone, Kanha is the largest park in Central India – but only about 20% is open to tourists. Kanha has two main gates, Katia/Kisli and Mukki, and five zones: Katia, Kanha, Kisli, Mukki and Serai. There are lodges clustered near each gate, in every price range, and some excellent places to stay. I always recommend booking a lodge based on the quality of the naturalists more than any other factor – a good naturalist will make your safari.

You can read more in my Guide to Kanha National Park, and the four lodges I recommend – both for their naturalists as well as their ambience, service, and commitment to sustainability.

What you need to know: Kanha National Park is open from October 16 to June 30. It is recommended that you book your safari tickets at least 120 days in advance.

How to get there: You can fly to Jabalpur, Nagpur, or Raipur and drive, depending on whether your lodge is at the Katia/Kisli gate or the Mukki gate.

Best time to visit: When the weather heats up in March, April, and May, tiger sightings are at their peak as they are drawn to the waterholes. Winters can be very chilly, especially morning safaris.

Where to stay: Pugdundee Safaris Earth Lodge is my top choice, followed by Singinawa, Bagh Villas, and Kipling Camp.

If you want to explore the national parks and tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh, check out the Breathedreamgo Wildlife and Tiger Safari custom tours, offered in partnership with Pugdundee Safaris. 

Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve is named after this hill, in Tala Zone

Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve

On this recent trip to Madhya Pradesh, an overnight train ride on the Narmada Express took me to Bandhavgarh National Park, where I stayed for four nights at Pugdundee Safaris Kings Lodge. I explored the local villages and went on two wildlife and tiger safaris with locally born-and-raised naturalist Naresh “Gudda” Singh, and saw five tigers: Dotty and her three cubs and Bheem.

Dotty strolling in Bandhavgarh. Photo Credit: Harpreet Singh

Bandhavgarh is the state’s second most popular national park and tiger reserve. Not as big as Kanha, it is easier to spot tigers in Bandhavgarh. In fact, it is considered by many to be the best place for tiger sightings in India. I also love this park, and like, Kanha, I have seen a tiger every time I have entered it. I remarked to one guide that I was very lucky to see so many tigers, and he said, “Maybe they want to see you!” A very charming thing to say, and typical of the friendly people I always meet in these natural places.

Bandhavgarh has three gates and three tourist zones: Tala, Magdhi, and Khitauli. The core zone of the park is 450 square kilometres, but the tourist area is restricted to 105 square kilometres. Sal trees and bamboo dominate, giving the park a lush atmosphere. Tala zone is considered the most picturesque, here you will see Bandhavgarh Hill after which the park is named, and the outlines of an ancient fort that sits on top. The region is rich in history and legend, associated with the Ramayan – in fact, Bandhavgarh means “brother’s fort.” It was formerly a game reserve for the Maharajas of Rewa until 1968 when it became a state park.

What you need to know: Bandhavgarh National Park is open from October 16 to June 30. It is recommended that you book your safari tickets at least 120 days in advance.

How to get there: You can fly to Bhopal and take a train to Umaria. Or fly to Jabalpur and drive.

Best time to visit: When the weather heats up in March, April, and May, tiger sightings are at their peak as they are drawn to the waterholes. Winters can be very chilly, especially morning safaris.

Where to stay: Pugdundee Safaris Kings Lodge or Treehouse Hideaway are my top choices. A more budget conscious choice would be Bandhav Vilas. At the very high end, Taj Safaris has a beautiful property, Mahua Kotha. And the Samode Safaris Lodge is heavenly.

Diyas on the Narmada River in Maheshwar with the ‘centre of the universe’ in the distance

Maheshwar

I was drawn to the ancient temple town of Maheshwar long before I finally visited on the Narmada Heritage Trail trip in December 2018. I’d seen many beautiful images of the ghats along the river glowing with diyas and the sublime light of reverence. This small city on the sacred Narmada River is known for history, architecture, weaving, and spirituality. It charmed me instantly and quickly became one of my favourite places in India.

Many of Maheshwar’s attractions are within the compact area that runs along the river, where the ghats are found. These include the Ahilya Fort Hotel, the Royal Palace of Maheshwar, the Ahilyabai Temple, Rehwa Society Weavers (open to the public from 10 am to 6 pm), and of course the Narmada River. It’s a fascinating area any time of day, but takes on a magical quality at dawn and dusk. Colourful boats are available to gently paddle you out the “centre of the universe,” an ancient Shiva temple. It’s believed that a heavenly line from the north star passes through this temple to the centre of the earth.

The beauty of Maheshwar is almost completely the work of legendary ruler Ahilyabai Holkar. A princess of Malwa who was widowed at the age of 29, her father-in-law, the king, prevented her sati. After he passed away 12 years later, she petitioned to become ruler of Malwa – needless to say, a very unconventional step for a woman. She ascended the throne and became ruler of Indore on December 11, 1767. Her rule was a glorious one. She built temples, roads, ghats, tanks, and wells. She made her capital at Maheshwar into a cultural centre, patronized artists and craftsmen, and established the city as a centre for weaving.

The legacy she left behind is palpable, enhanced recently by the work of her descendant, Prince Richard Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore. He and his former wife Sally Holkar revived the Maheshwari weaving tradition by establishing the Rehwa Society Weavers in the 1970s. In 2000, Richard converted his home into the rambling, romantic, exquisite Ahilya Fort Hotel – one of my absolute favourite hotels in India.

What you need to know: Come prepared to buy glorious Maheshwari fabrics – saris, scarves, shawls – made from cotton and silk.

How to get there: Maheshwar is an easy drive from Indore (about 95 kilometres).

Best time to visit: Madhya Pradesh gets hot, so anytime between October and March would be ideal.

Where to stay: There are several options, but a stay at the Ahilya Fort Hotel will be one you will never forget. A minimum of three days is required to fully embrace this special place.

8th century Gwalior Fort is one of the treasures of India

Gwalior

Madhya Pradesh is blessed with a number of historical cities, each with their own enduring monuments. Gwalior is among them, and 8th century Gwalior Fort deserves its renown. In fact, Gwalior is more famous than you might think. There is a small temple in Gwalior Fort that is ground zero for zero. As I wrote in an article for BBC Travel:

“In Gwalior, an 8th-Century fort rises with medieval swagger on a plateau in the town’s heart. Gwalior Fort is one of India’s largest forts; but look among the soaring cupola-topped towers, intricate carvings and colourful frescoes and you’ll find a small, 9th-Century temple carved into its solid rock face. Chaturbhuj Temple is much like many other ancient temples in India – except it’s famous for being the oldest example of zero as a written digit: carved into the temple wall is a 9th-Century inscription that includes the clearly visible number 270.”

Of course there’s much more to see and do in Gwalior aside from the magnificent fort, such as soaring Jain Sculptures, Man Singh Palace, the eccentric and opulent Jas Vilas Palace and Scindia Museum, and the Old City.

What you need to know: You can tour Gwalior on MP Tourism’s yellow bus, called Gwalior Darshan.

How to get there: Gwalior is located in the most northern part of the state. The Taj Express Highway connects Gwalior to Agra (120 kilometres) and Delhi.

Best time to visit: October to March.

Where to stay: If you want to splash out, stay at the Usha Kiran Palace, built for King George V when he was the Prince of Wales.

The Taj-ul-Masijid Mosque in Bhopal is the largest mosque in India

Bhopal

I’ve been to Bhopal several times, for conferences – including the AdventureNEXT India conference in December 2018 – and I’ve come to really enjoy and admire the city. Like many people, the only thing I knew about it was the Union Carbide gas tragedy that killed thousands of people in 1984. In fact, I was there on the 34th anniversary of the tragedy, December 2nd and 3rd. But though this terrible disaster did leave a negative impact on many of the survivors, it has not left a negative impact on the city. It’s a lovely city, with a slower pace of life and a rich historical past.

Bhopal is known both as the City of Lakes and the City of Begums. Bhopal’s lakes dominate the city, and create some charming vistas. It’s also a city graced with historically and architecturally significant palaces and mosques – and many of them were built by begums (a begum is a queen). From 1890 three generations of queens ruled here and left a lasting legacy. A young begum, widowed at the age of 20, fought..

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Aarti at the Ardh Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, the biggest Indian festival

Facing my fears at the Ardh Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest spiritual gathering

The Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest religious festivals in India – and on earth – and listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s held in four places in India on a rotating schedule determined by Hindu astrology: Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad), Ujjain, Haridwar, and Nashik. When the Maha Kumbh Mela is held, every 12 years in Prayagraj, it’s the largest spiritual gathering of humanity in the world. At the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013, approximately 120 million people attended the festival, over a two-month period. On the day of Mauni Amavasya alone, February 10, 2013, there were more than 30 million assembled to take a dip in the Sangam, the sacred confluence of three rivers. The next Kumbh Mela will be held at Prayagraj in 2019.

In 2010, I attended the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and had one of the peak moments of my life. Ardh means half – meaning this Kumbh Mela was a smaller version of the Maha Kumbh Mela. To describe a festival that drew 10 million people on one day, April 14 (the most auspicious bathing day), as a “smaller version” could only happen in India. 

This is the story of how I experienced the true purpose of spiritual rituals and faced my biggest fear at the Ardh Kumbh Mela on April 14, 2010 in Haridwar.

The 2019 Kumbh Mela is being held in Prayagraj from January 14 to March 4, 2019. You can learn more about the event and the schedule on the Uttar Pradesh Tourism website.

Me at the Haridwar aarti to celebrate the Ganga River during the Ardh Kumbh Mela 2010

The meaning of rituals and the Ardh Kumbh Mela

Rituals are meant to change us. In traditional cultures, rituals can be harrowing, sometimes even casting people into literally life-and-death situations. While rituals in western culture have largely evolved into token symbolism, in India they are still highly potent. Even weddings are endurance tests that put the bride and groom through lengthy and intense ceremonies. In terms of spiritual rituals, there are few more powerful and overwhelming than the Kumbh Mela.

In 2010, the Ardh Kumbh Mela was held over a period of three months in Haridwar and attracted 40 million people in total. The mela came to a peak in early April, when temperatures were soaring to a high of 44 Celsius. I was staying about 14 kilometres from Haridwar at Aurovalley Ashram, a peaceful place that I call my spiritual home. I was not there to attend the Kumbh Mela – in fact, I had no intention of attending. However, I was swept up in the excitement of the event that impacted the entire region.

At the time, I was at Aurovalley Ashram recovering from some health problems and the fatigue of launching this website in August 2009. But after two weeks of rest, I was able to recover my strength and energy enough to face the massive crowds and turbulent energy I knew I would find in Haridwar. I was also motivated by meeting two men who showed up at Aurovalley: Lalit and Jean-Pierre.

Lalit was a 6’ 3” Punjabi man from Pondicherry who has the exuberance of an entire class of school boys, the strength of an elephant, the positivity of a guru, and the charm of a Bollywood star. His friend Jean-Pierre was a tall, suave, enthusiastic French photographer who lived in Pondicherry with his Indian wife.

Their infectious spirit swept me up and before you know it, I was in Haridwar with them, in the camp of the Naga Sadhus (naked holy men) – meeting men covered in ashes and mala beads and very little else. We spent about four hours in their camp, and I had a great time, although it was very hot. The camp was actually in the town of Haridwar, in a maze of alleys. Temporary tents and enclosures had been erected for them, which included electricity and water taps. Most of the tents had some fans running, and some even had TVs and DVD players.

An Indian festival like no other

As we wandered through the camp meeting Naga Sadhus, chatting with them and taking their photos, I saw some astounding things. Several showed us how they could wrap their penises around a pole and then move or exert pressure on the pole in some way. One had a man stand on the pole as he held it horizontally behind him!

I really didn’t know what to think … or where to look, quite frankly. My photos did not turn out well as I wasn’t really prepared for these kind of histrionics. I was also not prepared for what seemed to be a fashion show. A lot of the Naga Sadhus seemed to spend a lot of time on their “look” – their hair, make-up, jewelry. And one of them, a particularly handsome one, was quite taken with me. He spoke to Lalit in Hindi, at length, about how excited he felt looking at me, and how he wanted me to come back and spend time with him. He even tried to get my phone number!

Two days later, we went back into Haridwar, but this time we went straight to the Media Centre and I was able to secure a media pass. With that in hand, I went to the media platform in Har-ki-Pauri, and had the absolute best view of the spectacular evening aarti to honour the Ganga River. There were several other media people on the platform, from India and from various countries, and many of them were also staying at Aurovalley Ashram.

So by the time of the “big day,” April 14, the most auspicious bathing day of the entire Ardh Kumbh Mela, I was feeling reasonably comfortable with the event. When Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji), founder of Aurovalley Ashram, announced he would lead a group into Har-ki-Pauri on the morning of April 14, I decided to go.

Swamiji leading us through the early morning hours to the Ardh Kumbh Mela

A sea of humanity, an ocean of bliss

We assembled in the pre-dawn hours, at 5 am, to begin our 14 kilometre walk along the banks of the holy Ganga River. As so many people were streaming into Haridwar that day, all roads into the city were closed and walking was the only option. When we started, it was pitch black, and all I could see was the faint glow of Swamiji’s white robes. There were about 12 people from the ashram. We walked at first through forests and meadows as we made our way towards Haridwar, then through a stretch of ashrams, a sadhus enclave, a village, and several huge temples.

It was light by the time we reached the flat, barren land on the outskirts of Haridwar that housed the pilgrims’ camps. Huge billboards plastered with garishly coloured pictures of swamis and babas lined the way, with seas of khaki tents for their followers billowing behind.

As we walked, we were joined by an increasing number of people until we were surrounded by hundreds, then thousands, and then, perhaps, millions. I felt like an extra in the film Gandhi. Pilgrims, devotees, tourists, naga sadhus, babas, sunnyasis, pandits, swamis, VIPs and god knows who else, walked with us towards the city centre, as the crowds surged. I saw families with tiny infants, old people who could barely walk, people carrying huge bundles on their heads … every manner and variety of humanity.

We may have been different in appearance, but we were all intent on reaching Har-ki-Pauri at the moment deemed by the astrologers to be the most auspicious for taking a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga that flows through Haridwar. This was the moment when Jupiter was in Aquarius and the sun entered Aries on the new moon, and it’s called the Shahi Snan (Royal Bath). Someone told me this happens only once in 5,000 years.

Women assembled at Har-ki-Pauri for aarti in Haridwar at the Ardh Kumbh Mela

Four drops of immortal nectar

According to Hindu belief, at the time of creation, the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churned the ocean until the kumbh (pot) of amrita, the nectar of immortality, appeared. A fierce battle for the kumbh ensued, between the devas and asuras. During the 12 days (12 years in human life) struggle over the kumbh, four drops fell on earth, in four different places, and every three years there is a mela (festival) at one of these places to commemorate the devas’ victory in wresting the kumbh from the asuras. It is a victory of light over dark; truth over ignorance; positivity over negativity. One of the four drops fell where the sacred city of Haridwar is located in north India … exactly where we were all headed.

Some of the people walking with us had walked for many days and weeks to have a bath in the Ganga at Har-ki-Pauri, a very small, narrow stretch of ghats that run alongside the river as it wends its way through Haridwar. It is astonishing in so many ways, and for so many reasons. In this cynical day and age, to find so many people of such powerful faith is astonishing. To have many millions of people living together in tents and camps, and taking turns bathing along a small stretch of river, largely without incident, is astonishing. To achieve the kind of order and organization that such an event takes in India, of all places, is even more astonishing.

I had asked Swamiji about the Kumbh, and why people go; what is the purpose; and the best attitude to take. He said that an event like the Kumbh helps put people in direct contact with the divine. No mediators are needed. After my experience, I know what he meant.

After about two hours of walking we passed the enormous statue of Shiva that greets visitors to Haridwar arriving from the Rishikesh side. I was never so happy to see Shiva in all my life! Soon after we reached the start of the ghats that line the river into Haridwar. The first ghat was closed to the public – only VIPs allowed. I had a media pass, and Swamiji had an all-access pass, and between the two of use, we got the whole group into the VIP enclosure – after the usual round of argument and negotiation with the guards, of course. It was a lovely place to be, well-located, spacious and calm, the perfect place to bathe, and I was so grateful to Swamiji for leading us directly there.

Taking a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga at the auspicious moment during the Ard Kumbh Mela

Receiving the blessings of the sacred river

I entered the chilly water at about 7:30 am, fully clothed, propelled along by excitement, energy and the full knowledge of how incredibly lucky and privileged I was to have had such an experience. It was more than once-in-a-lifetime; it was once in several lifetimes! I did puja, reciting the mantra Jai Ganga Mataji, held onto the rail (the current was very swift), and dipped three times in the water. Afterwards I stood up, hands in prayer, and took some time to feel the blessings and the energy, and savour the momentousness. I felt my feet on the ghat, the water up to my waist, and a current running through me, through the water. I felt pure joy and exhilaration. I was riding a wave of bliss that was running through the entire Kumbh Mela and uniting the millions.

All around me, the other people bathing were also expressing happiness and joy. Families bathing together, friends, the people from the ashram. And across from us, a sea of people heading towards the river, or in it, or walking away from it – everyone united in the desire to honour Ganga Mataji, the mother river of India, and receive the highest blessings from her as the stars aligned above our heads.

When everyone was ready to go back to the ashram, I was torn: should I go with them or take my chances and try to make it to the media platform in the centre of Har-ki-pauri. I was afraid to go alone, but I didn’t want to miss the chance. Plus, I had made a decision to at least live one day in full faith of the Divine. The group went left, towards the ashram, and I went right, into the heart of the mela.

I reached the media platform by walking with the river of pilgrims into Har-ki-pauri. When I reached the platform, I showed the guards my media pass. To my utter amazement, they wouldn’t let me up.

The platform was completely full – a very small space for the world’s journalists – and no amount of cajoling could move the guards. I saw my friends from the ashram on the platform, including Lalit and Jean-Pierre. They were the people I hoped to attach myself to, and return to the ashram with, in their vehicle.

When the guards wouldn’t let me up, I knew I was on my own. With nowhere to go, and no way to get back to the ashram except by walking, I had to think fast. The sun was climbing and the heat was building, and I didn’t know the way back.

Massive crowds gathered at Har-ki-Pauri in Haridwar for the Ardh Kumbh Mela

Facing my biggest fears

This was a peak moment for me, a moment of facing just about every fear I have ever had. I had to find my way back to the ashram through an unknown route, alone amidst crowds of millions coming the other way, as the sun climbed in the sky, with everything in the city and all roads closed.

I decided to go. To take my chances and walk back. I closed my eyes and grit my teeth. I reached inwards for strength and outwards for guidance.

I remembered that I had on top-quality walking sandals, and, in my backpack, a bottle of water, a bag of peanuts, two oranges, a hat, and sunscreen. And I was fit and healthy. So many of the people around me were old, frail, bent, poor, shoeless. I realized I had so much in my favour. So I went. I started walking.

As I retraced my steps, the only person walking out of Haridwar as millions poured in, I kept on the lookout for recognizable landmarks. Eventually, I made it all the way back to the ashram, about 14 kilometres. The bottoms of my feet were covered in blisters, but aside from that, I was completely well, exhilarated from my experience and my achievement.

When I arrived at the ashram, I noticed that everything seemed normal … except it didn’t. People were in satsang, or getting ready for lunch, and going about their daily business. But something seemed different and at first, I didn’t know what it was. But then suddenly I realized.

It was me. I was different.

Having faced my fears and triumphing, I felt I would never be the same. And I realized this was the entire point of the ritual.

From that day onwards, I have felt more faith in myself, in my strength to overcome, and also more faith in the divine. Whatever happens, I always think: if I can face and overcome the Kumbh Mela, I can do anything.

Naga Sadhu reclined in his camp at the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.

Safe travels and have fun! Let me know if you want any help with itinerary planning, or booking. I work with a number of highly recommended companies. Plus, I offer several “India for Beginners” custom itineraries. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up to The Travel Newsletter in the sidebar and follow Breathedreamgo on all social media platforms including Instagram, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Thank you!

Thank you for reading. Please visit Breathedreamgo or stop by my Facebook page at Breathedreamgo.

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Lght-filled diyas float on the Narmada River in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India

The year in review 2018: Discovering the journey is the destination

HAPPY HOLIDAYS from the banks of the sacred Ganga River in Rishikesh! As the year draws to a close, it always seems to me to be a good time for reflection. This year, 2018, was a year of transitions for me. I made a big life change, gained a significant awareness, and learned to trust both my heart, and the abundance and goodwill of the universe, even more. Here’s my year in review.

This year I realized the journey is what matters. Accepting that all the events of my life – including the ones I previously considered to be devastating and traumatic – are part of my journey has given me a profoundly peaceful and contented feeling. This awareness has been a long time coming … and I’m so grateful that a very long healing phase is over.

Travel journeys and a new home

In Udupi celebrating the new year & the new me

My travel journeys this year started in Udupi with a panchakarma cleanse and an eye-opening visit to an astrologer. After a beach vacation in Gokarna, where I finally visited famous Om Beach, I headed back up north to run two small group tours. On the first one, I accompanied a grandmother and granddaughter from the USA on the Breathedreamgo Shakti Tour that visited Varanasi, Khajuraho, and the Taj Mahal, among other places. Then I went to Nepal for the first time with responsible travel company Better Places Travel to hike the Kathmandu Valley.

My second small group tour was with Pugdundee Safaris and we went to all of my favourite national parks and tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh: Satpura, Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. (And saw seven more tigers.) Then in early April, I flew home to Canada … where I made a life-changing decision: to let go of my Toronto apartment and find a home (somewhere) in India.

I had been thinking about moving to India for several years, but thought that I should wait until an external opportunity made the decision, and the move, easier. Maybe something like marriage or a job offer. But instead, I listened to an internal cue. I woke up one morning in Toronto, on June 15, the new moon, and knew that it was time. Whatever was making me hang on to my Toronto apartment for so many years (11, the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my life), was no longer needed. It was time to go and I was mentally and emotionally ready. I listened to my heart, and spent the summer packing up.

Year in review for Breathedreamgo, too

In June, I took a quick trip to Kathmandu, where I spoke at the Himalayan Travel Mart about responsible travel. About the time I got back to Canada, I found out I had received funding from the Canadian government to monetize Breathedreamgo. I was awarded a Business Innovation grant from the Canadian Periodical Fund, Department of Canadian Heritage, which I’m using it to improve SEO for Breathedreamgo, increase traffic, and find ways to monetize including adding affiliate partners.

In September I returned to India, and my first order of business was to look for a  home. I spent a month in Delhi searching fruitlessly and felt despondent after looking at terrible apartments and dealing with uncomprehending brokers. After giving up, I went to Aurovalley Ashram for a break. While there, I decided to try a different approach. I turned my problem of finding a home over to the “divine,” and leave it up to fate.

One day, I went into nearby Rishikesh, and a chance meeting unexpectedly lead to the perfect apartment: a top-floor flat in a safe, gated community with astounding views of the mountains and the sacred Ganga River. Finding my home in Rishikesh gave me my second big lesson of 2018: to trust in the abundance, wisdom, and goodwill of the universe.

At Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, the largest fort in India, on our trip to explore the Narmada River

The heart of India

My final adventures of the year took me to one of my favourite states, Madhya Pradesh in the heart of India. I attended the AdventureNEXT India conference in Bhopal as hosted media (thank you!). It was organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), along with Madhya Pradesh Tourism and the ATOAI. Before the conference, I joined a pre-adventure, and visited Maheshwar and Mandu — I will be writing in detail about this fantastic trip. Finally, I spent four days in Bandhavgarh National Park with Pugdundee Safaris, where I saw four tigers, bringing my total up to 23 in the last two years.

So now I am spending the last weeks of the year 2018 at home in Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the nights are chilly at this time of year, but the sun shines brightly on this peaceful valley in the afternoon. Rishikesh is indeed a beautiful place, but that’s not what’s special about it. It’s the unseen that makes Rishikesh so luminous. The veil is thin here, the celadon waters of the Ganga River sparkle and flow, and it’s filled with shimmering light and uplifting vibrations.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible is to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery rightly said.

I found my new home by listening to my heart, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I ended up in India, in Rishikesh. As my Facebook friend Srila Devi wrote, “India to me is a land of subtle truths. Whether you can immerse yourself in India depends a lot on how much you can go beyond the obvious, beyond the five senses. On the surface, there is a lot of noise, confusion, dirt, and customs that may seem unfathomable. But close your eyes, become still, and listen, and suddenly you are in a different place altogether, a place that is beyond time and space. A place that is eternal and suffused with a deep silence, beyond all the noise. India is a place that nourishes your soul.”

Soaking up the light and good vibrations in Rishikesh

A new year … and new adventures beckon

In the new year, I will be following my heart to new adventures. In January, I will be travelling to lush, tropical Kerala, and conducting a workshop at the Outlook Indian Responsible Tourism Summit and Awards in Delhi. In February, I will be speaking on a panel at the PATA Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism Conference in Rishikesh. I hope to do some trekking in Himachal Pradesh, and my home state of Uttarakhand in the spring, and visit West Bengal, the Sunderbans, and Northeast India in the fall.

My ongoing commitment to responsible travel will continue as I endeavour to travel light, to leave a positive impact, and to help steer people towards choosing off-the-beaten path, sustainable destinations and adventures.

I hope we continue to travel together and experience the joy of the journey as we transition from dark days to light ones, and from one year to the next.

May the long time sun shine upon you, All love surround you, And the pure light within you guide your way on.

Happy winter solstice, full moon, Christmas, holidays, new year’s, life and whatever else you are celebrating at this time of the year!

Releasing light-filled diyas into the Narmada River in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India

Safe travels and have fun! Let me know if you want any help with itinerary planning, or booking. I work with a number of highly recommended companies. Plus, I offer several “India for Beginners” custom itineraries. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up to The Travel Newsletter in the sidebar and follow Breathedreamgo on all social media platforms including Instagram, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Thank you!

Thank you for reading. Please visit Breathedreamgo or stop by my Facebook page at Breathedreamgo.

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Travel by Indian railway, on an Indian train, is always an adventure!

How to travel on Indian Railways … and by Indian trains, planes, cars, rickshaws, buses, and more

WHEN PLANNING A TRIP to India, people often wonder how they are going to travel from place to place. How are Indian trains? Should they travel by Indian Railways in India, and how do they reserve a ticket? What about flying in India? Is it hard to book air tickets? And what about cars, taxis, autorickshaws, and automobiles? How much does it cost and is it safe to travel with a car and driver in India? These are just some of the questions I get asked, and that I often see in traveller’s forums.

After spending more than four years travelling around India by plane, train, automobile – and motorcycle, camel, bus, and bicycle – here are my thoughts and guidelines for booking tickets, and reducing as much stress as possible. Plus, recommended travel apps you can download and install.

  • How to take an Indian train
  • All about Indian Railways classes
  • Train safety, food, and other tips
  • Booking train tickets in India
  • Travel India by luxury train
  • Packing and luggage
  • Flying in India
  • How to book flight tickets in India
  • India travel by car
  • Bus travel in India
  • Taxis and autorickshaws
  • Other transport options
How to take an Indian train

Indian Railways (IRCTC) is one of the largest employers on the planet, and the rail network in India is one of the largest, covering more than 115,000 kilometres and plying more than 23 million passengers a day. Travelling by train in India is a great way to see the country, it’s economical, and it is much more eco-friendly than flying or driving. I’ve taken countless trains in India and I highly recommend it. But keep these tips in mind.

All about Indian Railways classes

Navigating the various classes of trains, and also the booking classes, can boggle the mind at first. I recommend 1AC / first class or 2AC / two-tier second class or EC (executive chair) or CC (chair class). It may sound fun and romantic to go third class, sleeper, or general class … but almost everyone I know who has done it, said it was gruelling, crowded, and not fun at all.

For overnight trains (trains with berths), 2AC / two-tier second class is often the best option if you are travelling alone. There are four berths in the compartment, which has a curtain and not a locked door, and another two berths with curtains along the corridor. For safety, this is the best set-up.

If you are a woman alone, in a first-class compartment filled with men, it can be disconcerting to be locked in with them. This happened to me once, and the conductor moved me. I like to book an upper bunk, as I tend to think it’s safer. Personally, I’ve never had a problem … and I’ve been on a lot of trains. I DO however, use a cable lock to lock my bags to the lower bunk when I sleep on a train.

There are many classes or grades of trains in India. The Rajdhani trains are the best (there are Rajdhanis that run overnight between Delhi and Varanasi, and Delhi and Mumbai for example). Next best are the Shatabdi trains. I have taken the Dehradun Shatabdi from Delhi to Haridwar dozens and dozens of times (to get to Rishikesh) and it’s almost always on time. Booking either EC or CC is fine on the Shatabdi.

INSIDER TIP: Try and book a train that starts with the number “2” or “02” or “12” or “22.” These are the best trains.

Train safety, food, and other tips

My experience is that trains are generally safe, but I always lock my luggage to the metal frame of the seat with a cable lock when I am travelling long distance or overnight.

Personally, I don’t eat the food on the train. I always take my own snacks and buy water, juice, and tea. There are also several services for ordering food, which are delivered to you while stopped at a train station that offers the service. I tried this once, and had a very good vegetable biryani.

Train washrooms are never good, even on the best trains. I bring wet wipes with me and use the washrooms as sparingly as possible. It’s a good idea to carry a small overnight bag if you sleep on the train, which should include:

  • Wet wipes, tissues, and hand sanitizer
  • Ear plugs and an eye mask
  • Socks
  • A small flashlight or headlight
  • Reusable water bottle and thermos
  • A sweater or shawl as the air conditioning can be chilly
  • A book. Here are some recommendations for my favourite books about India.
Booking train tickets in India

Nothing is easy in India, including booking train tickets, especially if you are a foreigner. However, everything is made easier if you have a local SIM card and an Indian phone number. With a local number, you can register with the IRCTC website and book trains directly.

I use Cleartrip to book trains because I can pay by international credit or debit card and because the system keeps track of all my bookings, which helps to keep me organized. Even when using Cleartrip, however, you still need to have an account with IRCTC.

You can now book Foreign Quota tickets on the IRCTC website – which means you don’t have to stand in an infernally long queue at New Delhi train station (NDLS). However, you have to register with a foreign number and it can be difficult to complete the process. I managed to do it this summer when I was in Canada, but I had to seek help via social media. (I couldn’t get the OTP needed to complete the registration.)

There are several reservation codes you need to know, too. There’s a full explanation here on Quora, but briefly:

  • CNF means that you have a confirmed ticket, even if you don’t have an actual seat or berth. Sometimes these are allotted when the chart is prepared.
  • RAC means that you have a reservation against cancellation. You can definitely board the train, and you will find out if you get a seat or a berth when the chart is prepared.
  • WL means you are on a waitlist. You can’t board the train unless and until the chart is prepared and you are allotted a seat or berth. There are several classes of WL tickets that you can read about here.
  • Tatkal. There are seats reserved in every train for Tatkal bookings, or last-minute bookings made the day before.

Best apps: Cleartrip, IRCTC Train Connect, Trainman PNR Status Prediction, RailYatri, WhereisMyTrain, Ixigo

Travel India by luxury train

If you really want to splash out, India is home to some of the world’s most luxurious trains. There are several, including the Palace on Wheels, the Deccan Odyssey, the Golden Chariot, and the most luxurious train of all, the Maharajas’ Express.

I road the Maharajas’ Express on a route in North India and it was an incredible experience.

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Packing and luggage

Swissgear Neolite 19-inch spinner on an Indian railway platform in Delhi

Elsewhere on Breathedreamgo, I have blog posts about what to pack and top 10 essential items you should bring to India. But here I want to stress the importance of packing light. There are several good reasons:

  • Only smaller luggage such as backpacks and carryon bags fit under seats in Indian Railways trains
  • Domestic air flights have very strict rules about luggage size and weight, usually just 15 kgs.
  • You will be carrying your luggage a lot due to infrastructure challenges.

This year, I am using Swissgear luggage. It’s super light, durable, and versatile. Perfect for India — where you never know what can happen! You need light luggage that can take a beating. On my very first trip with it, the train porter knocked over my 19-inch spinner into a puddle of dirty water. I was so disappointed that it got dirty so fast … but awhile later, after the water dried, the stain was virtually gone! Here’s what I’m using to travel around India:

Flying in India

It’s much easier to book a flight in India than a train, and there are a lot of options. India is home to a number of local carriers, and the domestic flight record is very good. It’s a safe place to travel by airplane, and it can be surprisingly cost effective, too. There are seat sales several times a year, and I always try and jump on those.

I usually fly if I am going a long distance, such as Delhi to Kochi / Cochin in Kerala. But sometimes to save time, I fly from Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun to Delhi, which is less than an hour. You can book all kinds of flights in India, the combinations are endless – but be warned, many flights go through Delhi or Mumbai, rather than direct.

Personally, I am partial to Jet Airways and IndiGo. Jet Airways is a full service carrier, and one of the best airlines in India. They also fly internationally, and I have flown Jet Airways many times between Canada and India. IndiGo is a fun and friendly budget carrier, great for short flights. (I just wish these airlines would have more gluten-free snacks and meals available.) Jet Airways flies out of the international terminal in Delhi, T1, which is a great airport, but it can mean longer times to get through security.

INSIDER TIP:  Flights are generally on time, or delayed by one hour at most, in my experience. Except for flights in and out of Delhi in winter. December and January can be very foggy in Delhi, especially in the morning. The fog has a notorious habit of delaying all transportation, especially planes and trains. Don’t book any early morning trains or flights in and out of Delhi in the morning during these months.

How to book flight tickets

I use Skyscanner and Google flight search to search for flights, and I often book directly through the air carrier’s website or Cleartrip. I have never had a problem booking directly through Jet Airways, IndiGo, or SpiceJet. I am a Jet Privilege member, so I use my points to travel on Jet Airways, too.

Best apps: Skyscanner, Cleartrip, Kayak, Momondo, Goibibo, MakeMyTrip

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India travel by car

Hiring a car and driver is often a great option if you’re staying within a prescribed area. I did a tour of Rajasthan and we drove an average of four hours per day, and I was able to cover most of the main cities in the state in just over a week. It’s a very convenient way to get around, but your experience will all depend on your driver. They can make, or break, your trip.

It’s absolutely essential to book with a reputed company who can supply you with a courteous and responsible driver, who speaks English, and is not insistent on taking you to stores that offer him a commission on your purchases. I wouldn’t dream of hiring a driver for a two-day or longer trip who I didn’t like or trust. The roads in India are treacherous and you need someone who can handle the intense driving conditions.

The cost of hiring a car and driver will depend partly on the car you choose. The most common cars are the Toyota Etios, which is a smaller car, and the Toyota Innova, which is an SUV-type vehicle.

Don’t expect the driver to double as a guide. They may be informative about the culture, but they are not trained as guides and may not be knowledgeable about the region they’re driving in.

INSIDER TIP: I work with several great companies here in India, and can help you to find a good car and driver. Contact me at info @ breathedreamgo [dot] com and I will connect you to a very reputable company that only uses new cars (less than 5 years old) and hires the best drivers.

A word about bus travel in India

When I was planning my first trip to India, back in 2005, I promised my brother I would not take a bus in India. He had gathered the impression that it was dangerous. This may be true, as I have read about a lot of bus accidents in the mountains, and I know a travel blogger who was in a bus accident in Rajasthan. One of the absolutely worst travel experiences I have had in India was on an overnight bus between Goa and Mumbai. I really don’t recommend overnight buses!

I generally avoid buses just because I don’t think they are all that comfortable. I make exceptions if the route is straightforward and flat, like the Rajasthan Transport (RSRTC) bus that plies between Delhi and Jaipur. I almost always take that bus between Delhi and Jaipur. It’s inexpensive and convenient, and it’s a nice, plush Volvo luxury bus. (However, they moved the boarding point from Bikaner House to either Old Delhi or Gurugram, check the RSRTC website.) My only complaint is the terrible places the bus stops for a rest break. It’s frustrating to drive by large, shiny, fabulous restaurants and stop at the shabby, dirty, broken-down government-run rest stops.

But sometimes, the bus is the only option. In that case, you can try booking through Red Bus. But not in the mountains. Please promise me you won’t take a bus in the mountains!

Best app: Red Bus

The trusty Indian autorickshaw is a great way to get around in metros

Taxis and autorickshaws

For getting around within a city, taxis, and autorickshaws are the best. To call a taxi, I recommend downloading the Ola app and using it. Uber is popular in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai and can work out very well. It’s generally much cheaper to use Ola and Uber than a local taxi stand.

Autorickshaws can be a great way to go shorter distances. Make sure you have the fare fixed before you start. There is usually room for some negotiation. In touristy areas, they tend to inflate the fares for foreigners, sometimes even doubling them. It’s good to know what the real fare is.

And in really crowded places like Old Delhi, Varanasi, or the Haridwar bazaar, the cycle rickshaw is the way to go. Personally, I tend not to negotiate with these guys because they work so hard for their money.

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Best apps: Ola, Uber

Other transport options

These are the most common ways to travel in India, but there are many other options. If you ride a motorcycle or scooter, you can rent them, or join motorcycle trips. In Rajasthan, you can go on camel or horse safaris. In Kerala, you can travel by houseboat on the Backwaters. In national parks and tiger reserves, you can travel by an open, jeep-type vehicle, the Maruti Gypsy.

Some people may want to ride an elephant in India, but I strongly advise against it. You can read about why you shouldn’t ride an elephant here.

Safe travels and have fun! Let me know if you want any help with itinerary planning, or booking. I work with a number of highly recommended companies. Plus, I offer several “India for Beginners” custom itineraries.

Note: This post was brought to you by Swissgear, but as always, my experiences and my opinions are my own. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up to The Travel Newsletter in the sidebar and follow Breathedreamgo on all social media platforms including Instagram, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Thank you!

Thank you for reading. Please visit Breathedreamgo or stop by my Facebook page at Breathedreamgo.

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Travel writer Shivya Nath, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

The Shooting Star by Shivya Nath is a travel book of rare insight and depth

New travel book by Shivya Nath, The Shooting Star, is a song of freedom, adventure, and voyages both inner and outer.

“As his anklet shone in the moonlight, it suddenly struck me that this man, just a humble fisherman with a worn-out sweater and no slippers, was a dreamer and explorer at heart. Perhaps the same heart that had made me board a flight, alone, to a place like this.

And yet, we were different, Not because he lived in ‘paradise’ and I came seeking it. But because he realized that paradise is just the place where your heart belongs.”

My favourite passage in The Shooting Star, a new travel book by travel writer and blogger Shivya Nath captures everything I love about her writing. The sensitively observed scene, the way she weaves in her own personal quest, and the insight she draws from the experience. Very few travel writers get all of these things right.

Early in my career as a travel blogger, I came across Shivya’s travel blog, also called The Shooting Star. I was very impressed both with her writing and her thoughtful approach to travel. I’m not sure who reached out to who, I can’t remember, but we met in Delhi for tea in Hauz Khas. This was in 2010 or 2011 or 2012 perhaps.  I’ve been following her blog, her writing, her career – and sometimes Shivya herself – ever since. I’ve had the good fortune to meet up with her in Scotland, Canada, and various places in India over the years

The truth is, though she is many years my junior, Shivya has inspired and influenced me like almost no one else.

Writing that inspires with passion and compassion

I knew the broad strokes of her life story, but not the details, until I read the book. In it, Shivya generously shares of herself. She shares her personal journey, as well as many of the immersive travel journeys she has taken in places like Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mauritius, Ethiopia, Georgia, and her native India.

Whether she is a writing about meeting a fisherman on the beach in Mauritius, or diving into a secret waterfall with a guide in Dominican Republic, or going through the rigours of the Ayahuasca ceremony in the Amazonian rainforest, or sharing her own story of rebellion and the pursuit of freedom of adventure, Shivya is always telling a bigger story. Her writing is far beyond the travel writing norm because it is informed both by compassion for the people she meets and passion for actualizing her dreams and her potential.

Shivya Nath of The Shooting Star in the Pin Valley

The hero’s quest

Shivya’s writing is more than just informative, it is inspiring. Yes, I learned a lot about the life of the young Buddhist nuns in the Himalayas of India, and the indigenous Quechua people in the Andes of Ecuador. But the underlying subtext, the message, is one of wonder, curiosity, and deep respect for the diverse peoples of this world. Her travels and her writings are filled with a deeply felt humanism, driven by her own “hero’s quest,” and her thirst for adventure, knowledge, and self-awareness.

As a traveller and a writer, Shivya has made a name for herself and built a strong following of people who admire her strength, courage, and perseverance. She defied a lot of odds, and the concerns of her protective family, to strike out at the young age of 23 to follow her dreams of world travel and creative storytelling. She shares her story not with an eye to fulfilling an ego-based desire for fame or fortune, but to inspiring others – especially other young Indian women who are similarly burdened by cultural traditions and societal expectations. To them, she is a hero, a pioneer, a role model, and indeed, a shooting star.

Travel writer Shivya Nath, the Lake District, UK

My life is my message

There’s a famous saying, “My life is my message.” The same could be said of Shivya. Her life is her message. The way she tirelessly pursued her travels and her storytelling career is itself a message. It’s a message of brotherhood / sisterhood and hope, a vision of a smaller world where people care for each other and the earth, and where everyone – young Indian women included – are free to discover and manifest their potential.

For me, Shivya is a role model because of the way she has maintained her vision and her values. In a world that has become increasingly superficial, she has continued to seek out the authentic. In a world that is obsessed with consumption, she has become a vegan who owns few possessions. In a world of mass tourism, she is dedicated to finding the off-beat and the unexplored. In world of pithy listicles, she writes lyrically of meaningful experiences.

Shivya has focus, integrity, talent, and awareness much beyond her years. Her writing is lyrical, insightful, and alive with carefully observed detail. She draws the reader deeply into the places and the scenes she describes, both the exterior world of landscape and culture, and the interior world of the people she meets and her own journey. She’s not just a brave traveller, but a brave writer, too, as she chronicles inner and outer journeys.

I hope this book is just the first of many. I’m sure this book is just the first of many.

The Shooting Star. Published by Penguin Books. 2018. If you are in India, you can buy it from Amazon India. Follow Shivya on her blog, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Shivya and I in Khan Market Delhi in 2015 (showing off new haircuts)

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