Travel: My top tips for visiting Southern India

So my recent trip to Southern India was truly marvellous. It did take a lot of thought and planning, and as it was our first time there we really had no idea what to expect. So I thought I’d share my top tips so you can benefit from what we learnt and have a wonderful experience too.

Do your research

India is a vast country and takes a lot travelling around. So don’t try to do too much, your holiday will very quickly turn into a route march. Think about which part you would like to explore. I had wanted to visit Kerala for a long time so that was our starting point for planning. We then discussed options with our fabulous travel agent East Travel. This process took over three months before we had what I hoped would be the perfect itinerary. And it was.

Work with an expert to plan your trip

In these days of internet travel planning it’s definitely become much easier to do it all yourself. But the complex issues (like distances between places and how long it will take you to cover them) mean I’d advise some help from people in the know. So we planned everything through East Travel who also worked with an agency called Travel Spirit based in Cochin in Kerala so they could benefit from local knowledge.

Stay in decent hotels

Okay, if you have serious budgetary constraints this is going to be an issue. But it’s definitely the way to go. We stayed in 4-star hotels throughout our trip. This meant a high level of comfort, large rooms, great cleanliness and no need to worry about food poisoning issues as we generally ate in the hotel where all the standards were very high.

Organise a car and driver

Driving in India can be a perilous experience – from the chaos and cacophony of the major cities to the general slower mayhem with livestock on the road, potholes and sometimes very bad road conditions to deal with. Not to mention finding your way! Our driver Vinish picked us up at the airport and drove us through Karnataka and Kerala until our final stop at the beach. Not only was it a convenient and comfortable way to journey through the country, it was also endlessly fascinating and Vinish was full of information and great company. Oh, and treat your car journeys (which can be long and slow) as part of the holiday – there’s plenty of sights along the way.

Vinish guided us safely through the cities and countryside of Southern India

Be careful with the water

Drink only bottled water at all times and make sure your bottles are properly sealed when you get them. We were advised to brush our teeth with bottled water too, but I must admit to forgetting to do that a lot of time with, fortunately, no ill effects. This is probably related to my earlier point that we stayed in decent hotels throughout. It’s also a good idea to avoid ice as much as possible as it can sometimes be made with inferior quality water.

Drink plenty of tea

India is the second biggest producer of tea in the world after China – producing over 1.3 million tonnes a year. This means there are beautiful tea plantations to visit and many types of tea to enjoy. I particularly enjoyed the spicy teas at roadside stops as we travelled through the country. Masala tea was my favourite, though I also loved the ones flavoured with cinnamon or cardamom.

Freshly picked tea leaves ready for processing

Eat yogurt for breakfast – and masala dosa

This is the best way to get a high dose of good quality probiotics on a daily basis. All breakfast buffets will have a version of yogurt, so you don’t even have to bring your probiotics with you. We had absolutely no stomach issues at all for our entire trip – though I’m not sure if it was anything to do with my yogurt breakfasts, but it’s a good, healthy way to start the day anyway. And you have to sample masala dosas wherever you go (a local breakfast speciality) – the thinnest of crisp pancakes served filled with spicy potato.

Eat lots of vegetable dishes

I reckon I could (almost) become a vegetarian if I lived in Southern India. There are so many diverse dishes on offer and they are all incredibly delicious. We didn’t encounter a lot meat and I had heard that it could often be the cause of stomach issues. So go big on the veg – and be brave and experiment with things you haven’t tried before. It’s a big and tasty part of the Southern Indian experience.

Southern India: top tips
Freshly cooked vegetable and fish dishes on our houseboat

Ride in a tuk-tuk

Tuk-tuk drivers are legendary in India, weaving through the traffic with apparently very little concern for any of the many road perils. Get your hotel to organise one for you, so you know you have someone trustworthy.

Take a train journey at least once on your trip

We got the train from Calicut to Cochin – it was about a three hour journey (way faster than if we had driven there). We travelled in the air conditioned first class carriage. It was an enjoyable experience, from taking in the (ordered) chaos of the huge stations to finding our carriage on the enormous train (it had over 20 carriages!). Vendors paraded up and down throughout the journey selling everything from samosas, biryanis sandwiches, cakes, ice creams, water and sweet chai. We didn’t risk any of the cooked food, though I did enjoy a lovely ice-cream and refreshing chai.

Southern India: train
Our carriage was full of relaxed travellers

Be prepared to have your photo taken with local families

I was stopped several times and asked to pose with families. Particularly on Christmas Day when there were large crowds of people exploring the Edekkal Caves. They clearly hadn’t seen a lot of blondes in their lives! It was fun to smile for their pics, I even felt like a bit of a celebrity (in a good way).

Southern India: Edekkal Caves
We climbed to the heights of the Edekkal Caves, stopping for photo opps along the way

Hire a local guide

The best way to learn all about the country. India has a rich history and culture and there’s a lot to take in, so having someone knowledgeable to lead you is a huge bonus. Also helps massively at big attractions (e.g. Mysore Palace, the second most-visited place in India after the Taj Mahal) as you can generally avoid queues and crowds to some extent.

Travel with your own wine

If you’re a  wine drinker you’re going to be shocked to discover that in Kerala 4-star hotels are not allowed to sell alcohol. Most of them don’t mind, however, if you have your own and will largely let you bring it with you to dinner (though this was not the case at one hotel we stayed at). The government is trying to limit alcohol consumption so you will only find one shop in a town that is allowed to sell it. The queues are generally substantial (though as Westerners we were permitted to skip it) and wine is not cheap as it is heavily taxed. It’s sold from behind a wire security grate and there’s only Indian wine available.  These shops are often off the beaten track – our driver Vinish took us on several journeys of discovery on potholed dirt roads, through the back streets! The whole thing is quite an experience – although not always a pleasant one – but we did need our wine with dinner.

Always visit the fruit, vegetable and flower markets

We went to two, in Bangalore and Mysore. I would have visited many, many more. They are beautifully bustling colourful places that are a true assault on all the senses – packed with an incredible range of exotic produce.

The colourful local markets sell all sorts of wares, including these vibrant dyes

Meander through a spice plantation and shop for spices 

I was amazed at the myriad spices growing throughout beautiful Kerala. There are cardamom bushes, nutmeg, cinnamon, tamarind and all spice trees, turmeric and ginger roots, pepper creepers and curry leaf bushes. Wow! I couldn’t resist a visit to the Spice Supermarket (possibly my favourite shop ever) to stock up in preparation for making my own version of this delightful cuisine.

Embrace the chaos

Don’t expect the same rules that you are used to in the West! India is a vast and populous country and it’s noisy, busy and can be overwhelming. Markets are crowded, roads are mega-busy and feel scary at first, until you realise everyone understands the rules (or lack of) and there’s just a lot of everything to absorb. Take time out to relax in the comfort of your hotel each evening. And drink in every moment in this fascinating part of India.

Have you been to India? Which part did you visit? What was your experience? And where would  you recommend I go next. Do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

We organised our trip to Karnataka and Kerala through East Travel. Their in-depth knowledge, flexibility and patience was absolutely invaluable with the itinerary going through several incarnations.

 

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