Southwest in India is the state of Karnataka. It’s not typically on the tourist radar for foreigners. My friend Robin was attending a wedding on the coast at Malpe and needed a “plus one”. We made the most of it and organised ourselves a six day road trip through Karnataka before the wedding. For convenience, our starting point was the same as our end point, Mangalore. Mangalore was convenient as it is an hour’s drive from the wedding venue and we both had early flights the day after the wedding.
From Mangalore we travelled in a loop taking in as much as we could without overdoing it. So we didn’t make it to Bangalore unfortunately. We had a wonderful time though, and count it as a great success that in our six days on the road tripping through Karnataka we saw a total of eight other foreigners.
I flew from Singapore to Chennai, waited a couple of hours for Robin to fly in from Delhi, and then we caught a domestic flight to Mangalore.
This was my third trip to India. Here’s my best travel tips for India:
- If this is your first time to India, read this article for the best way to prepare.
- Buy rupees before you go.
- At airport cafes, avoid the spaghetti! (see our advisory video here!).
We organised a driver to take us where we wanted to go. Organised through Network Tours Pvt Ltd, our driver Mr Raghu was waiting for us at Mangalore airport. We set off immediately for Madikeri, Coorg.
Coorg is beautiful countryside called the “Scotland of India.” The land here is dotted with waterfalls. But, travelling in April, at the tail end of the dry season (rains start about June), we didn’t stop to look at waterfalls. It is green with steep, mountainous hills and narrow valleys.
Two hours later, we arrived at Raja’s Seat in Madikeri, about 5.30pm. Locals were out enjoying the cool breeze and sunset at the hilltop park.
Another 15 mins out of town and we reached our accommodation, Copperhill Villa. I’m glad we stayed here rather than a resort. We took a walk down the road and got a first hand look at some of the landslide damage from heavy rains in 2018. We were almost 2000 m above sea level.
Copperhill Villa is a hill station. Basically, a large house set high up in the hills where city folk come to relax and enjoy the nature and quiet. There is pepper and coffee growing in their gardens. It was a very comfortable stay. We had a queen size bed each with inter-connecting rooms. There was no air-conditioning but the rooms were well ventilated (insect screens on all the windows and doors), with a large efficient ceiling fan.
The mountain air was nice and the mountain views were stunning.
Dinner and breakfast were included in our room rate and the quality of the food was seriously amazing! If you go and stay, I hope young Soman (half Indian, half Tibetan) is still the cook. The owner and the staff have good English and are very accommodating.
We left at 8.30am, headed for Namdroling Monastery about an hour away, and on the way to Mysore. Stop at any of the dozens of spice/chocolate roadside stores to check out local products.
Namdroling Monastery and its surrounds are truly Little Tibet. More than 5000 Buddhist monks and nuns live in exile from Tibet in this area. You are welcome to take photos at Namdroling monastery, but no video. We spent 1.5 hours there enjoying the different temples. Like all temples in India, you’ll need to take your shoes off to enter the temple buildings.
Before you travel very far from Namdroling Monastery, be sure to try some momos at a nearby restaurant. Beef momos, vege momos. In soup or without. These are Tibetan dumplings and cannot be purchased everywhere, so get them while you can!
At 12.30, after a lunch of momos, we continued to Mysore. We stopped for sugarcane juice at one of the many roadside stalls on the way. Be sure to ask for some lime with it – so refreshing. The great thing about having a personal driver is remembering to use your personal driver and asking him to stop when you want. Nothing worse than driving by, never to return that way again, and wishing you’d stopped.
We also got our driver to stop so we could admire gorgeous stands of fresh mangoes, grapes and jackfruit for sale. If you buy any roadside food, remember to wash it with bottled water before consumption.
It was mid-afternoon, on a Saturday when we arrived at Mysore Palace. Talk about busy! It cost 70 rupees each. You’ll need to take your shoes off before you go in. Be sure to get your shoe token (receipt) or you’ll have to pay 50 rupees for lost token.
Mysore Palace is very grand. It is a one way system to see it. I guess two foreign women are an interesting sight in this part of India. We were asked to pose for selfies and photos with children, wives and families on the whole trip. It was a lot of fun though the guards in Mysore Palace kept blowing whistles at us when we stopped for too long!
We paid an extra 180 rupees each to see the Residential Wing. It was OK, but didn’t really add anything to our visit, so we wouldn’t do it again.
In search of silk scarves
Mysore is renowned for silks and our driver knew a place. He took us to a government run silk store. Run by the government means the prices are fixed and supposedly fair. But we couldn’t support it as a silk scarf, priced at SGD $23, that I can buy in Singapore for SGD $15. We moved on.
From there we checked into our accommodation at the Radisson Blu. We shared a spacious and quiet twin room. Really in the mood to buy a silk scarf now we checked out the Mall of Mysore right next door to the hotel. No silk scarves but some cool little Indian flavoured clothing stores. I really like the SGD$15 dress I got there!
At 6.45pm we headed off to the Devaraja night market. We were pulled into a little incense store and given a demonstration on how to make incense. Great little demo, very interesting. But it wasn’t silk scarves.
We left the incense stall and crossed the road from the old market. After asking at a couple of silk sari shops we hit the jackpot. At Badsha Bazaar we found the silk scarves we were looking for, at the friendlier price of SGD$7 each. Perfect! These make the ideal gift for women travellers so we bought plenty.
Dinner that night was at the Royal Orchid Metropole Heritage Hotel. Their Tiger Trail restaurant is set in a pleasant courtyard. It was a delicious meal, and a fitting end to day two.
After breakfast and check out, we tracked down the neighbourhood of Mandi Mohalla in Mysore. We were looking for some local craftsmen.
Mandi Mohalla was a fun little neighbourhood to wander around. Mysore is known as Pensioner’s Paradise in India, and it was easy to see why walking around here. We spoke to people and got invited in for coffee. The streets here were clean and well kept. We found some inlay wood handicrafts. We also discovered a 120 year old bakery that had just pulled out large sweet bread rolls from their oven. The craftsmen there open their shops from 10am on Sundays.
Wander the streets and see what you can discover.
At 10.20am we said farewell to Mysore and drove 30 mins north to the Krishna Raja Sagara dam. It has a large garden which has a light show at night but you can’t go up on to the dam wall. It cost a few rupee to enter the garden grounds. We heard the light show is pretty good, but we wouldn’t stop there again.
We left the dam at 11.30am. The next one and a half hours of driving was through quarried rock desert landscape. It was fascinating to see the villages and towns in that area. We got to the town of Shravana Belagola at 1pm.
Can you imagine a giant naked god, made of stone, on top of a rock? You don’t have to imagine it if you can walk the 680 steps carved in rock to the top of the hill!
We climbed with some local kids who climb to the top every month with their aunt or mother. They became our tour guides and proudly pointed out their town far below and told us about the cave halfway up where people used to sleep thousands of years ago.
Shravana Belagola is home to the largest monolithic idol in the world. At the feet of this god you will find a Jain priest who gives you a blessing of health and fortune for a donation. Because it’s a temple, you have to take your shoes off at the bottom of the huge rock before you start climbing.
To support the local economy we bought a hat and socks for 200 rupees each. The socks were welcome protection against the hot rock. Hand your shoes in at the shoe counter and pay 5 rupees when you give your ticket back to collect your shoes. We spent an hour and a half to walk up, look around and return to the shoe counter.
I’ve seen a lot of temples in Asia, but none like this one. Great views as you climb up (and down). And you pass old script carved into the rock as you climb.
30 rupees for a coconut once we got back down was well worth it.
We started driving at 2.30pm and drove for two hours. The landscape changed from rocks to fields of cotton, coconut, sugarcane and vegetables.
Then we got to my favourite temple of the whole trip. More correctly, this is the Hoysaleswara temple in the town of Halebeedu (or Halebidu). This town feels miles from anywhere and used to be the capital city of the Hoysala Empire. The temple is made of black soapstone and dedicated to Shiva.
The craftsmanship was amazing. Intricate carvings and detail everywhere you look. And there was a real feeling of peace to this temple. I could have sat there enjoying the beauty of it all till the sun went down. But, I’m not sure that was technically feasible because locals kept wanting photos with us. What is not to like about an adoring public?!
Note: If men want to take photos with you, we advise caution and suggest that you do not let them touch you in the photo. Women is a different matter and does not cross any cultural taboos. We happily responded to requests with women and children. In fact, all the men we met were well-mannered and if they requested a photo it was with them and their wives, and the wives stood next to us.
We had one more temple to visit before reaching our accommodation.
Twenty minutes away was Belur temple. We got there at 5.30pm. Remember to have small rupee denominations with you for all these temple shoe counters. Another 5 rupees each to leave your shoes in a safe place outside the temple gate.
This was a very yellow temple with lots of colour and images of Ganesh (Hindu Elephant God). We had a quick walk around as the sun dropped in the sky.
Then on to our accommodation – the Taj Gateway at Chikmalagur. We stayed in a “cottage room” which had a queen and a single in a large room.
It would have been fun to stay in Chikmalagur for a full day and take a nearby safari or trip into the coffee or tea plantations but this was an overnight stop only unfortunately. The staff were wonderful. Especially at dinner time. We planned on a swim in their beautiful pool, but there was a huge downpour just as we arrived, so we relaxed until dinner.
The dinner buffet was delicious local food. The staff happily explained what the foods were and how to best enjoy them.
After a good breakfast by the pool we left at 9.15am.
We drove through beautiful hills of coffee plantations and trees. At 10.45am we stopped at a Badra roadside coffee shop. The coffee smelled good, but we just stocked up on water and used their clean western toilet before continuing our drive along winding mountain roads.
We got to Sringeri temple just before 12 noon. Our driver seemed especially excited that we were visiting this temple. There are lots of temples in the complex and huge fish in the river that runs beside the temple grounds. The fish were well fed, and it was fun to see the fish carved into the temple walls – we didn’t notice that at any of the other temples!
At 1pm we headed for the coast! We should have had lunch in the town of Sringeri before we left. It was slim pickings once we hit the road. We stopped for a plate of rice at a local road stop where we had no choice but to eat like the locals with our hands – or more properly, with your right hand only.
There was one more stop for the most breathtaking photos on a mountain pass when we came out to magnificent views across green jungled hills rolling away into the distance.
The mountain roads eventually connected with a new highway running north along the coast. We arrived at 4.30pm at Sai Vishram Beach Resort. It was a long day in the car, but with good company, and stops along the way it went quickly.
Night at the beach
Sai Vishram Beach Resort at Paduvari gives off a glamping vibe. Perfect if you want to switch off (WiFi only available in the office up the hill) and soak up some “vitamin sea”. We stayed in a large air-conditioned tent room. Each tent has it’s own large outdoor bathroom which is completely private. It is tent accommodation though, so noisy kids in the tent next door may as well be in your room. There are other rooms in buildings up the hill, but we wanted to be as close to the sea as possible.
It was a flat, easy 50m walk from our tent porch to the beach.
The beach was beautiful. Warm water (of course) with a quick drop over to water of a decent depth.
Hot coffee, tea or chocolate and snacks (savoury fried balls of deliciousness) was served at the beach at 5pm. The dinner buffet was in the open dining tent under the ceiling fans from 8-9.30pm. The staff were so friendly, making sure we had plenty of food, and keeping us supplied with cool, fresh water.
After a buffet breakfast and a relaxed morning swimming in the ocean we left at 11.25am.
We pulled into the Samanvay Boutique Hotel in Udupi at about 1.15pm.
This is a very comfortable hotel if you ever go to Udupi. And this was our final stop for our six day road trip through Karnataka. We had two nights here.
Time for lunch. A quick Google search led us to 7Bees Cafe for lunch. Among it’s more compelling selling points was the fact that the food was “hygienic.” It was also small and low key. Our toasted sandwiches and frappe were delicious.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the hotel cafe working on our laptops until we stopped for dinner at Saffron on the hotel grounds. This is a very good vegetarian restaurant. Highly recommend.
Wedding day! The reason for the whole trip! The much awaited-for excuse to put on saris and get intricate mehndi on our hands! Mehndi is also known as mehendi, mehandi, or henna (though henna is what it is called when you’re NOT in India).
After breakfast at the hotel (very good, Indian) we explained at reception that we needed help preparing for the wedding. We asked if they had recommendations somewhere for mehndi and help with getting dressed in our saris. They mentioned a beauty parlour we could go to, but then they went one better. The two girls from the office offered to help us with our saris. And they arranged for some people to visit the hotel and do our mehndi on site for us.
Getting dressed in a sari is not something to be rushed. I was borrowing a sari from Robin who is noticeably taller than me. There is so much fabric to be pinned, pleated and tucked when you do it right. So, it took a while. But you feel like a princess in a sari. At least I did!
We finished just in time for the two men from Rajasthani Mehandi Art. We met them in the hotel lobby where they spent the next hour painting both sides of our hands and wrists with henna. Then it needed another hour to dry. And that was with us using the hairdryer in our room trying to hurry it along!
A quick aside about the Hindu tradition of mehndi (also spelled mehendi), or henna painting at weddings. Besides lending color to the hands, henna is a medicinal herb. Weddings are stressful, and the stress can manifest as headaches and fevers. As the wedding day approaches, the excitement mixed with nervous anticipation can take its toll on the bride and groom.
Henna is applied on the hands and feet, which house nerve endings in the body, to help cool the body and keep the nerves from becoming tense. Interesting, right? As well as that, watching mehndi artists at work is very calming.
We still had some time so we asked the helpful girls at reception if they knew a place we could buy some jewellery. You can never have enough bling (or wear enough makeup) if you’re going to an Indian wedding.
Time for a makeover
The girls advised that we should go to Naina Fancy, a store a few minutes drive away, to purchase some “ornaments.” I loved how they call jewellery ornaments! It’s my new word for big, over the top jewellery.
Walking into Naina Fancy in our saris, with our makeup and mehndi was a treat for us, and the girls in the store! They took one look at my crooked sari (my underskirts were showing and I felt like I was going to trip over the extra fabric) and asked if they could fix it. Yes, please!
I was bustled into a back closet with four girls who proceeded to unwrap me, and use another 20 safety pins to fix my sari. Once we came back out everyone nodded approvingly at the rearranged sari, but they weren’t done. Clearly, I hadn’t spent enough time fixing my hair, and they asked if they could put some clips in it. I gave them permission to do whatever they wanted.
This was the line they’d been waiting for… I sat in a chair surrounded by nine girls who somehow managed to turn my shoulder length bob into a bun! Fake hair (at some stage you just gotta go with it) and lots of bobby pins was used to achieve the final look.
My first ever makeover!
It cost me about SGD$50 for my makeover as well as my new ornaments. It was worth every cent.
We had lunch at 7Bees again for convenience. So much fun to see the staff and customers do a double take at the foreigners coming in all dressed up to the nines. We shared a burger. It seemed like appropriate food when you’re dressed in a sari and looking so glam!
We drove 2o mins or so to the beach venue at Malpe. The wedding venue was outside with a cool sea breeze.
Robin was a friend of the bride and we visited with the bride for a bit while she got ready. She was putting on sari number two when we arrived. Before the day was out she would wear five saris. All stunning in design and colour. Want to guess where she got her wedding bangles from? None other than Naina Fancy!
When the groom’s family arrived, we stood by the bride’s family as ceremonial rituals of welcome were performed. We didn’t really understand what was happening but it was clear to see that everyone was happy. This was a love marriage, (as opposed to an arranged marriage). The bride did ask her fiance’s family if she could continue working after the wedding though. They gave their approval.
There were no elephants or horses at this wedding, but there was a lot of laughter and rice throwing. 500 people came for the party and the meal. All the women were beautifully dressed. As the only foreigners we were both invited up to say a few words before crowd participation games started.
The evening passed quickly. It was a gorgeous wedding – I’m so glad I got the opportunity to attend. Weddings typically have a lot of dancing, and we were looking forward to it. But by the time the music was starting up, we were leaving. We had an early start in the morning.
Our driver was waiting for us and delivered us safely back to our hotel room where we slept like babies.
Up at 6am for a 6.30am departure. It took 1 hour 15 mins to reach Mangalore airport. It’s a small airport. Our flights were 15 mins apart. We had time to grab a hot chocolate for breakfast and then said goodbye in the departure lounge.
I had a super tight connection through Chennai Airport. I was grateful my flight from Mangalore landed on time (after a delayed departure) and also grateful for the battery car at Chennai that runs between the domestic and international terminals on Level 2 (which is an outside level).
Our six day road trip through Karnataka, India was amazing in every way. It felt very much “off the beaten path.” I saw temples unlike any I’ve ever seen before (and after years in South East Asia, I’ve seen a lot of temples!).
Our mehndi lasted close to three weeks and was a very tangible reminder of a wonderful trip.
Trip taken April 2019