Another short notice-trip yet again.
This trip came about because of a Buddhist holiday in Thailand, which gave me 3 days of holiday. As soon as my friend and I found this out, we talked about where we should go and somehow Kolkata came up. I don’t remember why we ended up choosing Kolkata I just remember that it was a very quick decision.
This trip was the first time in India for the both of us. To be honest, India has never made to top 10 of my list, but i guess it has always been hanging around there, nearby. I have heard so much about India. Good things and bad things. What most people would say about this country is that you either love it or you hate it. A while back, my siblings went on a backpacking trip around India (…without me…) and while my 2 sisters loved it so much and told me they would love to go back, my brother had nothing good to say about his experience. I guess this phenomenon has been sitting in the back of my mind plus Air Asia has been heavily promoting its new BKK-CCU route (this route is no longer available). So it clicked. I wanted to experience India myself. 3 hour-long flight is nothing. Kolkata is so close.
Because it was somewhat short notice, we didn’t actually plan out anything. We did a bit of research for points of interest to know our options but nothing in depth. It was more of going with the flow day-to-day type thing.
We arrived at 1 in the morning of a Friday (shitty flight time indeed). It took us really long time at the immigration. I was waiting behind a Pakistanian guy and he got grilled for what seemed to be forever. They (2 officers) asked so many detail-oriented questions like the name of my company, what kind of company is it, why I was in Kolkata, why only for 3 days, and then a shocking question — what is my religion!?! This was the first time in my entire traveling life that I was asked about my religion by an immigration officer. I screamed out “none of your damn business!” — Ha! not really. I just answered Buddhism. The officers nodded. Now I know why that Pakistanian dude was being grilled so hard.
I guess that’s the only downside of the incredibly convenient online visa. The people with normal visa got through very quickly. They had put us in different ques so it was easy to spot the difference. Welp, now I know better.
As soon as we got out of the airport we looked for a taxi to take us to the hotel on the other side of the city. Some guys came up to us and said 800 Rupee, some said 900 Rupee. One guy just sort of guided us right to his car but when we realized that we were being ripped off, we walked away. Took us a while to find the prepaid taxi booth. We didn’t know if the 700 Rupee they charged us was a proper rate (we found out later that it was doubled the actual rate) but they gave us proper document and receipt so we went with this as we were so tired and just wanted to get the hell out of the crowd of taxi drivers and go to bed. It took us maybe 30 minutes driving through a dead city.
2 women in the back of a taxi driving through the darkness of what looked like an abandoned city. The cool breeze of the night came in through the rolled down windows as they looked out on the street trying to avoid looking at shadows of bodies lying on the footpath.
It was surreal.
The next day after a very disappointing first meal, we decided that we wanted to start with the Victoria Memorial, one of the landmarks of Kolkata. We chose to walk there from the hotel as suggested by the hotel receptionist. He said it would take 10 minutes. It ended up taking us at least 30 minutes because although the memorial is not far, we took so many stops because there was so much going on. And this, I learned, is the charm of India.
The fact that there so many things to see along the way to a place made it so much fun to explore. If we would have just kept walking fast to get to that damn memorial we would have missed the street salon with one dude sitting on the chair in the middle of the foot path and the barber trimming out his nasal hair. What an interesting sight! We would also have missed the kids playing in the alley while their moms were hanging up the colorful Sari to dry. We would have missed the stray dogs lying in the middle the walk way like it’s no one’s business and missed the street food vendors selling some sort of deep fried dough and curry to the people lining up to get some while a little goat was being chained to the pole next to that line. All of this was happening with loud car honking sound in the background. Ahhhh India.
Going place to place in Kolkata was surprisingly easy. There were so many taxi running around in this city. Very beautiful looking taxi I might add. The only problem with the taxi was the rate the drivers asked from you. Most of them will not use the meter so you just need to negotiate. If price negotiation puts you off, there are other ways to get around as well. The metro is another good option in my opinion. It might be crowded from time to time but it is unbelievably cheap! There are also tuk-tuks, which I didn’t like very much because of the dust we had to inhale during the ride. A rickshaw is another possibility but it is more for a short sight seeing around certain areas rather than to get from point A to point B sort of transportation. Last option is the bus, which was actually quite OK.
We didn’t see many tourists. There were barely any tourists actually, which surprised me a bit. But I guess most people see Kolkata as transit city for them to go somewhere else rather than to stay. I think that’s why people are still not so used to tourists. The reason I picked up on this was because of the stares. The local really do stare at you and I could not help but felt like an alien to them. But from what I noticed, these stares are just a result of curiosity, especially when I had my camera hanging from around my neck.
I was told that Indian people associate camera with fame and being famous like Bollywood star. A few people actually came to us and asked if we can take photos of them. I didn’t have to ask. As soon as I showed them the picture I took, they would nod. People here have specific way of nodding where their head is tilted to the side, usually the right side. And when they do this it means the picture is good.
If you google Kolkata’s points of interest, the results are mostly religious and architectural landmarks. Whether it’s Victoria Memorial, St. Paul Cathedral or Hindi temples like Darkshineswar, Kalighat Temple, Balur Math, or Birla Madir (the latter one is very beautiful). As for the famous Indian Museum, I did not enjoy it so much. I found it messy. Too much of things are put in there. Nothing represents specifically the country India or its culture. I was having way more fun walking on the streets learning the culture as I see it. And my favorite places were the markets.
Mullick Ghat flower market
Looking down from the Howrah bridge, this place at the first glance looked like a giant garbage dump site but if you look closer you will see that those colorful things you see are big piles and piles of flowers from all over India, cars driving pass by, and people walking around. This is the biggest flower market in Asia. Most of the flowers here are being sold to be used in Hindi worshiping ceremonies. Standing on the bridge looking down you can already see how chaotic the place is. There was a moment when I thought maybe I should not go down there but then it also seemed like it would be a lot of fun walking down there with all the people, so we went down. The people at the market were super friendly like no one else. They were also very talkative (they spoke Hindi to us) and very smiley. A lot of them voluntarily posed for pictures. If you walk to the very end you will see a path leading to the river where a lot of people use as their shower.
New Market is located in the center of Kolkata. In the market itself, there are many things being sold ranging from spices to Sari fabric. We encountered an elderly man who approached us right in front the of entrance and he tried to take us to a fabric shop although we had said no. In the end we had to walked away very quickly. On the outer ring of the market is where the fresh market is. Here you will see vegetables and street food. This place becomes very lively in the evening when people got off from work to get their cheap street food dinner. It is probably the only place other than Victoria Memorial where you can bet on seeing fellow travelers.
Funny enough, this morning market is known for Chinese food! We are in India god damn it! It is also well known for fresh fish. We had to get up super early to make it in time because this market closes at around 8.30am. We made it in time and managed to eat a bunch of stuff. It was a very satisfied early morning indeed. Hmmm samosas…!
Speaking of food, I had a wonderful food experience here in Kolkata! (almost)Everything was so tasty. Though a lot of people traveling to India have big concerns over the sanitary of street food, I had no problem at all. It was all just delicious feast and so cheap. #fatgirltalking My friend who has a very sensitive stomach, like me, had no problem eating all the street food here. We just made sure to pick the vendors with at least a handful of customers (so we know there is an approval from local community that the vendor produces edible products) and we would be cleaning our hands all the time with wet sanitary tissues.
So that was how we chose where to eat. But when it came down to what to eat, we didn’t have any tactic. We just pointed to pictures of what we thought looked good. Or if there was someone eating something that looks good, we’ll point to them and say ‘same’. And the vendor will serve us that same dish. It was so simple. Out of many meals there, I managed to made only one mistake choosing one wrong dish. Until today, I still don’t know what it was but there were ice cubes at the bottom of the dish with something that tasted like coconut milk and ketchup……I didn’t even finish the first bite. See my face in the picture →
My favorite thing here is Chai or the milk tea. It tasted just right! Though each vendor makes it a bit different. Some put ginger in and some put a bit of masala in. But they all sell it in this little clay cup for 5–6 Rupee. They also serve potato curry in a little container made out of dried leaves. So eco-friendly and inventive! One thing I can say about the food is that Indian street food cuisine is heavy! Most of the food are deep fried food. Definitely not for healthy eaters.
Other than sanitary, another concern people have about India is the issue of safety, especially for women. With all the news coverage, one can’t help but develop negative image on India. I will not say that there is a ‘rape culture’ in this country because I didn’t experience anything close to that whatsoever. But I can say that in Indian society, Male are very dominant. During my time in Kolkata, not once did I feel threatened or that I was in any danger. There was one strange moment where a dude came up to us and, with his hand signal, said that he wanted to take a picture with us. Then he managed to grab my waist very tightly when taking the picture. That definitely caught me off guard but he did not actually do anything to us. We smiled at him and walked away very quickly. He actually followed us and asked for money. We didn’t give him any and swiftly parted ways. Yes it was a bit odd, but we didn’t feel that he could post a serious danger to us.
All in all Kolkata is a safe place to travel. Though I can only say this for during the day as I did not go out at night at all! We could not find any bar which we thought was strange. 3 whole days in Kolkata was a very positive experience. Now I can join the club with my 2 sisters and proudly say that I love India and will definitely go back to explore more!
31 important tips:
- E-visa is indeed very convenient. But its biggest down side is when you are actually at the immigration. Travelers with E-visa have to wait in a separate line from the ones with normal visa and you can see the big difference. The officers take a very long time with E-visa holders asking very detailed questions. It can be very time consuming.
- There are so many mosquitos at the airport. Wear something that covers your whole body or pack a bottle of mosquito repellent.
- At Kolkata airport, if you come out of the arrival terminal, you cannot get back in. You need a plane ticket for that day to be able to get through military personnel standing at the gate.
- There is nothing being sold at this airport. You cannot do last minute souvenir shopping here.
- Don’t be surprised if you see gun carrying- military officers and tanks on the street.
- There is no super market or mini-mart. There are only local vendors
- Tap water is undrinkable
- When buying bottled water you need to make sure that the cap is sealed shut. Some shady vendors will give you a bottle filled with dirty tap water.
- You don’t need to sign the receipt when making payment via credit card (strange)
- Check opening hours of temples. Most of them open in the morning and evening while close during the afternoon
- There is no official guide at Kalighat Temple. If someone approaches you asking where you are from, just walk away.
- Also at the same temple, if someone tells you to take off your shoes and leave with them. Don’t do it. Only people going inside the temple to do the worshiping need to do that.
- If you give money to a homeless person, more homeless people will approach you
- If you really want to give, give no less than 10 rupee. Be considerate.
- You can also offer them food and water instead of money.
- At the street vendor, there is a plastic container filled with drinking water but there is no cup provided. Don’t be shocked if you see people picking it up and pour the water right to their mouth.
- Taxi is easy to get. Most of them have meter (starting from 25 Rupee)
- When negotiating the taxi price, keep in mind the price that the taxi wants is doubled the real rate of the meter
- People drive like crazy here
- If you don’t want to deal with crazy driving, go for metro
- Riding tuk-tuk can be painful (butt area)
- Rickshaw can also be fun but make sure you know how much you have to pay beforehand
- Small ferry boat from Darkshineswar to Belur is such a good way to see the lives of the people living by the river
- The bus is also a good choice but be careful when getting off of it because it doesn’t really stop
- This city is so dusty. You need to wash everything off your face and don’t forget inside your nose
- Wipe your hands clean before and after eating street food
- With street vendors, you eat first pay later.
- At Birla Madir, you cannot take your camera inside and you need to take off your shoes before entering. What they will tell you is to switch one by one. You let your friend go in first and leave the stuff with you and then you go in and leave the stuff with your friend. Be careful, the guard will approach you and offer to take photos for you in front of the temple. He will then ask for money. He only does this with foreigners.
- It is not allowed to take pictures on the Howrah bridge. There are signs and policemen monitoring.
- It is not allowed to take pictures in the metro station as well as inside the train. Not sure why.
- Air Asia carry-on luggage tag is very important. You need it at all time as they will keep checking on you. If a tag is missing, you need to check in that luggage instead. No warning.