I started my trip in India at Trichy. A relatively ho-hum city from a tourism perspective, the only reason why I chose it as my first city was that TigerAir, the cheapest (and best, in my opinion) budget air had a good deal from Singapore to Trichy. It left a very good first impression though. The airport, while crowded, was decently organised. Extremely cheap public transport (8 rupees) was available to the city, and the only shock came from the non-stop honking the minute we were on the road. I left Singapore with J, a friend from Barcelona whom I’d met a few months ago. We were both excited despite having hardly slept the night before, and after walking around in the heat, which was growing increasingly unbearable, we settled for a room near the bus stand. Most of the less touristy cities in South India did not have a hostel culture, so if you’re travelling alone, that would eat into your costs.
Excited to explore the city, we had a quick lunch on a banana leaf. It was the first of our daily meal times at a canteen-like restaurant. Jugs of slightly dubious looking free drinking water lay on the tables, and I decided to take the risk and drink from them. It turned out to be fine, as should be expected. The first vegetable briyani tasted really awesome – well spiced, and I hardly missed the meat.
After a short bus ride to the city centre, we made our way to the Rock Fort Temple. This was the main tourist attraction in Trichy, and surprisingly, we were the only foreigners there. You had to take off your shoes at the entrance, and climb up a long flight of stairs to the top of the rock where the temple was located. J was pretty certain that his new Salomon hiking boots would get stolen, but I was sure that no one would want my dirty af slippers.
We attracted quite a lot of attention at the top, being the only tourists, and got a few requests for photos and selfies.
After some photos of the colourful panoramic view, we considered walking to the little island sandwiched by the two banks of the river (which was in fact dry, as it was in the middle of summer), we decided to pass as it was really hot, so we had a leisurely stroll through the markets and streets back to the bus stand. J was on a mission to find toilet paper, which was surprisingly sold by just a handful of shops here.
That night, we hardly slept, as the noise from the traffic just wouldn’t stop. Eager to get out of the city, we boarded an early morning bus to Madurai, the gateway to the hill stations. It was a very pleasant first experience with inter-city public transport. There was no need to buy tickets in advance for the bus, and although it was supposed to take 3 hours, it actually took less time. Traffic on the highways was light, and though there was no AC or fan on the bus, having the windows open made the ride pleasantly cool. The bus was also full-ish, but not overly crowded. I had an image of passengers hanging out of overcrowded buses in my mind, and this was a far cry from it.
Madurai was a bigger city than Trichy, and it certainly seemed more affluent. We had scouted a few hotels near the Meenakshi Temple, the main attraction in the city, and settled on one which had wifi (apparently, not common there). The temple was closed during lunch time, so after another vegetarian rice meal and our first chai, we took a slow walk to a palace nearby, and came across the first other tourist of the day! The architecture wouldn’t have been out of place in Europe, and it was a great escape from the afternoon heat.
Just as the temple was opening, a guy from a nearby souvenir shop told us that we could borrow sarongs and leave out bags there, and have a good view of the temple from the top too from his shop! It sounded like a great ploy to force us to buy souvenirs from him, but J seemed to trust him so we just went along with him. It was just a well, because J did some shopping with him, they were pleased. The views were pretty decent too!
The temple itself was huge. A group of giggling school girls followed us around, and made some cheeky conversation, asking why I was traveling with J if we were not married. I guess this is cultural difference at its best. It was extremely colourful, with 14 towers, each 10 storeys high. Tourists couldn’t visit the innermost temples though.
After a short rest, we ventured out at night, and the city truly came alive then. Fruit sellers were hawking their bananas, watermelons and pomegranates. Indian sweet shops, all seeming to sell the same desserts, had throngs of Indian men in their dhobis gathering around for the little sweet milky squares. Neon light signs were blinking everywhere, trying to get the crowd’s attention. We settled for dinner at a famous Idli shop. A fermented rice cake served with curries and sambars of various sorts, it was rather delicious. That night, we finally had a decent sleep. The hotel room was not facing the main road so we were spared the honking. Still, we were super eager to get out to the mountains, and bade the city goodbye after a night.