A First Class Indian Adventure Part 6: Selling Sea Shells By The Shore Temple in Mamallapuram

Around midday our bags were loaded on to the now familiar wooden boat and we were rowed back across the river to our waiting car. We dropped N & G in town and said our goodbyes with the intention to meet again in Mumbai before our return to London. It was a two hour drive to Cochin International Airport and not a particularly scenic one at that, especially in light of the last few days. As we approached Ernakulam and the road to the terminal there were numerous developments everywhere: everything from high rise flats to luxury hotels, mega malls and dozens of half-built steel and concrete pillars rising upwards into the smoggy sky. If that was not enough then there was also the Cochin Metro train development competing for space and attention amongst the throng of activity. Thankfully our drive felt pretty fast and before long we were dropped in front of departures for our flight to Chennai.

Flight: Jet Konnect 9W2734 COK – MAA
Depart: Kochi 17:15
Arrive: Chennai 18:50
Seats: Seats 3A and 3C (Economy)
Aircraft: ATR 72-500 (Reg Unknown)

In the end we arrived at the terminal building around two hours before our flight as the car journey was shorter than expected. I spotted a rather forlorn looking MasterCard lounge that took Priority Pass on our way to the check in desks. The lounge looked a little worse for wear and with it being land side as well as us not being familiar with the airport geography we decided to give it a miss. At the check in queue Anne-So encountered some slightly inebriated Scotsmen trying to charm and trick their way to the front of the queue. With national stereotypes to the fore she successfully deflected them back to their rightful place, whilst I watched on quietly hoping they’d go away of their own accord. “They should really have known better than to try and queue jump a French person!” exclaimed Anne-So, once our intoxicated friends were out of earshot.

After a short wait we were checked in and our boarding passes issued for seats 3A and 3C. Had we been split up? Was it the good luck of a free middle seat? Maybe we’d been upgraded? Perhaps adding my Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Gold number to the booking helped? I guessed the mystery would be solved soon enough. We continued through security whilst a bunch of 6E Girls tried to barge ahead of me at the bag scanner. Where was the “Back of the Line” lady from BKK when you needed her!

After exiting security we found ourselves in the departures lounge which was filled with plenty of comfy seats and not much else.
I grabbed a bag of India’s Magic Masala crisps and a can of appy Fizz whilst waiting for the inevitable boarding zoo to occur.

Despite the slightly dreary airport surroundings I was still excited as it would be my first time flying with what was at the time of writing, India’s premier airline, Jet Airways which eventually went bankrupt in the face of competition from the low cost airlines IndiGo and Spice Jet, both of which we used on this trip. This flight would be operated by the low cost arm of the airline, Jet Konnect, which itself ceased to exist by the end of the year in which we travelled.

Upon boarding I quickly realised why we had seats A and C as this flight was operated by the smaller ATR-72 aircraft rather than the Boeing 737 I had expected. On the plus side as well as it being my first time flying with 9W, it would also be my first time riding a turbo prop.

Safely on board the aircraft and it seemed like our flight attendant for this short 90 minute hop wasn’t the least bit bothered.

I was convinced she set the record for the worlds fastest safety demonstration.

Other than that, this flight wasn’t the greatest introduction to the now defunct Jet Airways, though thankfully they would redeem themselves on the remaining two domestic flights of our trip.
I found our flight on the ATR-72 to be very smooth but the engine noise toward the front portion of the cabin was incredibly loud, no wonder the seats at the rear are heavily prized on these aircraft, lesson learnt.

Hotel: Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay Mamallapuram
Room: Chalet, Sea View – Room 20
Status: Radisson Gold

We arrived on time at MAA and were quickly off to our waiting car that would take us to the sleepy beach resort of Mamallapuram, famous for its 7th and 8th Century monuments. The Radisson’s vehicle of choice was a Toyota Innova and our driver headed out into the early evening light with real intent as clearly he didn’t like to wait for anyone or anything on the road. Barely a minute went by without a loud honk of the horn or flash of the headlights to blind the oncoming vehicles in to yielding. Thankfully upon striking up a little conversation with him it turned out our driver was only aggressive on the road. He was a local to the Mamallapuram area and having completed three years study at the local art college was now training as a sculptor.

Our check in at the Radisson was quite the show, it started with a much needed welcome drink and a gift of a shell necklace each but despite the festivities it did not feel as slick or as special as our welcome at the Oberoi where staff always seemed to know me before I introduced myself. Our check in agent went through all the benefits (or lack of benefits as Radisson Gold) quite quickly. For some reason the information for connecting to the resort’s WIFI was not given out.

We were driven somewhat embarrassingly by golf cart to our room, a top floor Sea View Chalet which sported a genuinely good ocean view. Each of the chalets in this section consisted of four separate rooms, two on the ground floor and two above.

At first we thought our room was beautiful, but that feeling soon melted away with the realisation that due to the proximity of the ocean it suffered from an awful salty-damp smell coupled with horrific humidity and condensation.
I hoped this was the first and last time that I’d stay in a room that gets worse night sweats then I do! Though five years later my dreams were shattered.

Furthermore, in what seemed to be a regular pattern at the Radisson properties we have stayed at over the years, the configuration of the bathroom was not particularly practical. On the plus side as you’ll see later on, the ocean view was absolutely spectacular.

We felt rather fatigued after a long day of travel so we chose to have our dinner at the hotel and went to Wharf (which since our visit has been replaced with Wharf 2.0), the higher end of the dining options on offer.

In my opinion the lamb was definitely the nicer of the two kebabs. Our mains came with a generous selection of side dishes: two different dals, various naans and a vegetable curry. Whilst they were not up there with the best dishes we had on our trip, I thought they were decent quality and fair value for money. The portions were more than generous and left us with no room for anything sweet to round off the meal. To drink we shared a large Kingfisher between two perfectly chilled icy glasses. I thought the service was friendly and prompt and if we’d been able to we would have returned. Over dinner we planned our sightseeing for the following day before returning to our room for coffee and biscuits.

Whilst I know this is the third time I’ve said it, but wow, what a view! Was it worth the slightly damp smell and condensation in the room? Quite possibly! The ocean’s waves were quietly murmuring on to the beach and in the hazy distance there was a clear view of Mamallapuram’s famous Shore Temple. It almost made getting up a pleasure.

Eventually we managed to tear ourselves away from our ocean view and headed off to breakfast at the hotel, arriving half an hour before the closing time of 10:00. Despite the late hour it was a challenge to find a clean table to sit down at and in the end we were offered a spot that had been quickly wiped down, so we made ourselves comfortable and got ready to dig in before it was too late. The breakfast was a fully self-service buffet with a great mix of Indian and Western options.

The food was generally nice, though after the fresh juice at Our Land the drinks here were surprisingly weak and tasted artificially sugary.

Whilst the food was not bad, I felt that service was a little lacking as the staff were keener on clearing up the breakfast room than serving incoming guests. Despite the nightly rates being similar, the service and quality of the food here was definitely not in the same league to that at the Oberoi earlier in our trip.

After finishing breakfast we made the short walk into town, looking for the post office.

Unfortunately the maps from the hotel and our trusty guide book were less than perfect.

The coastal weather here on the east coast was much more manageable than the blistering sun we found in Kerala on the western side of India. Our first stop of the day was to visit the Arjuna’s Penance set of monuments, also known as Descent of the Ganges, these elaborate stone carvings depict the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth from the heavens and Arjuna receiving Shiva’s most powerful weapon.

Our first port of call once there was to hire a guide. Often the guides we encountered across our two trips to India were eager to the point of irritating in trying to get you to go with them but the two men near the entrance to the monuments were just talking to each other and gave the impression that they couldn’t care less about getting a tourist to part with their money. We walked around outside for a bit and on seeing the complex headed back to the gate to hire one of the guides. As we arrived they were both leaving so we asked the nearby security guard for help. He then asked the post card seller, who came back with what looked like his friend. He told us that he had brought us, “best guide, very good” and we cautiously followed behind him. Although on first impression he certainly did not look like “best guide”, instead the man he had introduced us to looked like the stereotypical image of an ageing-stoner. Sporting a mop of dark curly hair, thin as a rake and wearing the cheapest looking pair of neon-pink armed sunglasses you could ever imagine. He had the mouth of a pipe smoker and to us was reminiscent of an Indian version of Crabman from the TV show My Name is Earl. Thankfully, our first impression was rapidly dismantled and we actually really enjoyed our tour.

Better still not only was our guide laid back he was also devoid of the typical Indian small talk of wages, children and how much everything cost.

Not only did he take us on a route away from the heaviest crowds, helping us avoid some of the death defying behaviour from the domestic tourists but we were also able to put much of the cultural knowledge he shared with us to good use long after parting.

The area around Arjuna’s Penance is interesting for the styles of monument on display: monolithic, natural, built as well as some Roman and Egyptian influences.

We then made our way towards the Five Rathas, so called as they resemble replicas of traditional wooden temple chariots.

We arrived at the Five Rathas and were immediately accosted by a guide telling us what a large complex we were about to visit and how we’d definitely need his help. When we refused his offer, he continued to follow us, attempting to sell us silk paintings in the process! On arrival at the gate we noticed the area for exploration was rather small and as expected all Five Rathas were fairly easy to see.

As we entered the enclosure where the rathas were located we unfortunately realised why the lady who had been queuing in front of us at the ticket desk earlier had such a stack of tickets in her possession. Before we could even take in first of the Five Rathas they were invaded by a shrieking choir of green uniformed school girls using the monument as a playground. Between their kicks and giggles we tried our best to match our guide book’s descriptions to each of the five mini monuments.

In the end we gave up and instead agreed to head towards the famous Shore Temple, supposedly one of the seven mythical pagodas mentioned by early-European explorers to the area. We hoped to get a closer look at the magnificent monument we could see from our hotel room. The Shore Temple was located at the end of a long, hot, open walkway which had a guarded gate at the end. We really felt the heat as we made our way across the scorched stone to the temple area.

On entry our tickets were checked and then kept by the guard, I was really hoping we would have been allowed to retain them as souvenirs. Oh well… Disappointingly the temple itself felt less impressive the closer we got to it due to all the salt water erosion.

We walked round the outside path towards the temple only to find that the nursery rhyme had lied to us our whole lives and in fact it was ‘he’, not ‘she’ that sold sea shells by the sea shore.

We continued to walk around the temple area and took some pictures, there were plenty of interesting stone carvings on the shaded side, but they did not compare in terms of grandeur to what we saw in Khajuraho on our first trip to India or to what we would see later on in Madurai, albeit it’s slightly unfair to compare them with the latter. Truth be told, the view from our hotel balcony made this monument look grander than it actually was. With a mixed bag of a morning out the way it was time for lunch.

We walked back to the Fisherman’s Colony area for food and picked out Le Yogi, which our guide book said served, “some of the best Western food in town” and that “the airy setting, with bamboo posts and pretty hanging lamps, has a touch of the romantic”. As an added bonus it was also the first entry we found from our guide book and the description seemed enticing enough. We arrived at the stairs up to the restaurant and the surrounding area smelt much like something a cow expelled from her rear end. We looked at each other and perhaps exhausted from the heat agreed to risk it regardless. There were four bored looking men at the entrance and a sign asking us to remove our shoes, perhaps that explained the smell? We noticed another couple hiding in the far corner of the dining room and we increasingly got the impression that Mamallapuram was the kind of town that tour groups stop off at on the way to or from somewhere more exciting.

We were given menus and ordered some drinks to re-hydrate and cool down, a lime soda and a mineral water.
At least one thing our book said was true; the setting, smell aside was certainly romantic.

Anne-So was not feeling hungry but I was and I finally caved in and ordered my first portion of non-Indian food on this trip, a pizza which at first I thought was somewhat bizarrely named after the restaurant across the road. My Pizza Mama arrived a while later and looked good, though the egg white on top was still a little on the transparent side in places. I scrambled it up across the bacon, cheese and green peppers, thinning it out to try and get the heat of the pizza to cook it through a little more.

Other than the slightly underdone egg, the pizza was tasty with a thin, crispy crust and as an added bonus my napkin explained that the owners also had a pizzeria.

At the original time of writing this tale, I had nearly doubled in age since the last time I’d stepped into a swimming pool of any kind and that in itself was an accurate reflection of my self-confidence during the time leading up to this trip. As a child I loved swimming and was always above average for my age, but then for some reason I didn’t continue with it at university and as I grew older I was almost afraid of the pool. Thankfully in the last two years I have broken that curse once and for all, but honestly I definitely recall being a tiny bit scared to swim again after such a long time out of the water.

Apparently the Radisson also boasts the largest pool in India, with a total length of 220 metres it felt like it would have been a real waste not to try it out.

My plan was to swim at least one full circuit of the pool. Step by step I slowly slipped in to the water, acclimatising to the temperature. After a few minutes I finally plucked up the courage to set off and I don’t ever recall my legs feeling so heavy or my arms so weak with fatigue. A pathetic ten to twenty meters later and I already needed to stop for breath.

Thankfully the pool only had a four foot depth so from that point of view it was ideal for someone like me to stop as and when I needed to and trust me, my stops were frequent.

Eventually I made it round and whilst lying on my lounger to dry off, I felt a small sense of pride from doing some exercise.

As night was closing in and the air temperature had begun to drop we decided to return to our room to connect our camera to the TV and look at the photos we’d taken so far. Unfortunately the only way to connect our camera to the TV was via the DVD player that was hooked up to said TV with old fashioned AV cables rather than by HDMI, meaning that when our photos did eventually load on to the screen, the quality was horrible. There was only so long we could endure the pixelated mess on screen, so we ended up curtailing our photo session after the first few images.

Around 19:30 we headed out for dinner and after the decent meal we’d had the previous night we decided to try Wharf again as the other restaurant on site, Waters Edge was hosting a buffet, despite the hotel’s guide saying otherwise. We arrived at Wharf and saw that the restaurant was nearly empty, but when we asked for a table we were told that everything was booked and the lady serving us couldn’t say when a spot might be free. Again, it wasn’t great service as it would have been nice to know when we checked in that we might need to call ahead and book a table for that particular restaurant or at the very least someone from the restaurant could have offered to call our room when a table became vacant.

We headed back in the direction of our room and after some debate we decided to have a look at the buffet.

Although the menu was huge, the expensive price of 1500 INR each plus drinks really put us off. So instead we went next door to the bar and after the 25% discount as a Radisson Gold member we only paid around 1500 INR total for a decent meal and drinks.

The food was not bad at all and like the night before the portions were generous. Although the meal was expensive compared to what we might have paid in town, the convenient setting of the hotel more than made up for it. After once again failing to defeat our dinner we returned to our room to pack for the next leg of our trip from Chennai to Madurai.

On our final morning in Mamallapuram we awoke at 07:45 to ensure we didn’t have to rush at all. Whilst the hotel bathroom may have looked nice in the photos, the toilet, sink and shower were all in close proximity to one another making it a pain for two people to get ready at once. We walked over to the other end of the complex from our room to get our breakfast at Waters Edge. Thankfully it was much better than the day before and closer to the expected five star hotel service that we had paid for. We were quickly shown to a clean table and immediately offered our choice of fruit juice and hot drinks, rather than having to serve ourselves. In addition we were also asked if we’d like any of the made to order eggs rather than having to queue for them at the chef’s cooking station.

I started my breakfast with fruit, Bombay halwa and a donut.

The halwa was unlike anything I’d even eater before, it looked like fruit jelly but with the consistency of Turkish delight and the flavour of neither thanks to the presence of pistachios and a creaminess from the ghee. It was quite unusual and I was really glad to have tried it. I looked at the other options and as much as I wanted to try them, I couldn’t bring myself to spoon a serving of lambs trotter curry on to my plate at such an early hour.

Instead I stuck with the yummy pongal, fresh varda, tomato idli and a big serving of streaky American-style bacon.

After all this was a buffet and you can do daft things like that if you want to!

We headed back to our room for the final time and received a call asking to confirm our airport drop which we had arranged for 10:30. I spent some time finishing the packing, catching up on the football news and reading Quirrow’s TR to India on FlyerTalk, filled with some beautiful wide angle photography. Soon enough check out time rolled around and we called a buggy to pick us up for what again felt like a humiliating ride of shame to the lobby with our luggage. Normally we’d walk but the cobbled paths were not well suited for our cases on wheels. We arrived at checkout and the desk agent had problems with my card, at the fifth attempt he handed it over to his colleague who magically got it to work right away. There was one stroke of luck, we were finally able to pick up the stamps for our post our cards just before we got into our waiting car. Despite the surface beauty of the resort, with those bright bursts of colourful flowers, the yellow sandy beach and the Shore Temple in the distance, I can’t say we were sad to leave the Radisson and I do believe that that this was the one hotel on our trip that wasn’t worth the money we paid, especially when compared to the five star treatment we received at the Oberoi.

A First Class Indian Adventure

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