“ An independent guest house in the popular tourist town of Hampi, India „
For the last few years my husband and I have spent a couple of weeks each year in India. I'd love to say that WE plan and organise everything ourselves but in reality it's me who puts our tours together. Hubby just turns up and goes along with what I've booked. Whilst some people think we're a bit crazy to take this DIY approach, I have to stress that we're really not that 'brave' at all because the one thing we don't do is just turn up somewhere with no plan of where we'll sleep or what we're going to do. My student back-packer days are long gone and I like to know where my head will be hitting the pillow each night.
I research hotels and guest houses, check online reviews, compare prices, get in touch with the hotel and set everything in place long before we leave the country. The one place where this proved to be a big challenge was Hampi in Karnataka, a massive UNESCO World Heritage site packed with historic temples and royal palaces. It's popular with backpackers and people taking trips inland from Goa and attracts a very broad range of ages, races and nationalities, some of which are loved and appreciated and others aren't. I'm not a fan of the backpacker scene but for Hampi I was willing to make an exception. For those unfamiliar with the geography, it's pretty much half way between Hyderabad and Bangalore and for those who equally don't have a clue where either of those cities are, it's in the south of India roughly half-way across the country. If you have time there are some other amazing places in the area and I half-wish now that I'd done a bit more research and included some of those - after all, who could resist visiting a town called Aihole?
Finding somewhere to stay in Hampi in advance wasn't easy. There's very little information about places to stay on any of the normal hotel and accommodation websites. Put 'Hampi' into Expedia and they come up with just one hotel and that's actually in Hosphet, about a 40 minute drive away. Tripadvisor and trivago.co.uk don't do much better. Through the marvellous website Indiamike.com (a special travel site ONLY about India) I learned that the 'up-market' approach was to stay in Hosphet and commute in each day, the mid-range approach was to use the Karnataka State Tourism hotel called Boulders which was almost universally slated by reviewers, and that most people just turn up and take their chances on finding something when they arrive. Even that's not a straightforward choice as accommodation splits across the river. The small guesthouses and rooms in people's homes are on one side of the river with most of the big temples, whilst the larger places with rooms and lots of private chalets tend to be on the other side, quieter with more space but a little more removed from the action. The boat between the two sides costs something like 15 rupees (about 20p) per person per crossing which if you're going ultra-low budget will probably mean you want to stay in the town centre. Be aware that the boat doesn't run all day and outside operating hours, you'll take your life and luggage in your hands with a more pricy coracle crossing. Also at times when the river is high after it has rained a lot, the river is dicey to say the least and you'll probably want to not pick accommodation on the 'wrong' side.
I ruled out staying in Hosphet. Then I ruled out the Boulders hotel. Then I ploughed through lots of forum threads on Indiamike.com for some ideas on where to stay. I came up with the name 'Mowgli'. Call it fate, call it wishful thinking, but as the human companions of three cats, two of whom (Baloo and Bagheera) are named for characters in the Jungle Book, it seemed like a good choice. Best of all, they had a website of sorts (well more of a blog) where I could find some information and get contact details. I emailed the Mowgli and asked if they had a room when we needed it (in November) and asked for a small cottage for three nights. The reply came quickly saying they could let me have a place at 600 Rp per night (about £7.50) and if I wanted to guarantee the room I should send one night's payment to their bank account. It all seemed very easy and of course very cheap until I spoke to Barclays and discovered that transferring 600 Rp was going to cost about £25 in bank fees. The chap in the call centre in Mumbai (sometimes it's handy that you're talking to an Indian) agreed with me that it was ridiculous and asked if I had any local friends who could help out because there was no way that he'd pay those fees either.
I explained this to the Mowgli in another email and was told that they understood and I was asked to remind them nearer the time. A couple of days before we were due to arrive, I mailed them to reconfirm we were coming, told them we'd arrive ridiculously early in the morning and asked for details on how to find them and what to expect to pay for an auto-rickshaw.
~ Getting to the Mowgli~
Our night train arrival at Hosphet Junction station was about 15 minutes late and we had no trouble to get a drive to Hampi that would be worthy of a review all on its own. We found ourselves on the river bank in the town at 6.30 am, too early for the shuttle boat to be working. Our rickshaw driver pointed out the coracle heading across the river towards us apparently defying all the laws of physics in doing so. My first instinct was a rather John McEnroe-esque "You cannot be serious" followed by "Jeez, how much water can he take on and still not sink". But the choice was simple - sit on the bank and wait for the boat service to start or look upon it as an 'experience' and keep my eyes closed during the worst bits.
Landing safely and slightly soggy on the other side, we dragged our bags up the river bank, fending off the offers of help of a small boy who was only slightly taller than the bags. At the top we were greeted by a restaurant owner who happily told us which direction to go in and didn't push us to change our mind and take his rooms instead. We walked through the early morning calm and the slightly muddy puddles with fields on one side and sleepy guesthouses on the other. We checked out the menus as we passed, worked out what was on offer and eventually came to the Mowgli, just about the last place along the road. By this time it was still not 7 am and there was nobody around. We found a gardener who scurried off in search of someone to help us and we dropped our bags and took some seats on the terrace. Eventually a quiet young man by the name of Ramlal emerged from the undergrowth to help us with a room. I explained that I'd booked and gave him the paper work, he explained that the boss was in the shower and wouldn't be available for a while but he could show us a cottage for 500 Rp or we could wait until later and he'd have a better one for 900 Rp. Since I'd booked one for 600 Rp, I think the whole booking process had just been forgotten completely but I was not bothered at all. I asked him to show us the room that was available and we trotted off to a row of little white thatch-roofed round cottages, stopping at the last one. It was available, we needed it, it was ludicrously cheap and very basic so we said 'Yes'.
~What do you get for £6 a night in Hampi? ~
The first thing I have to say is that the room wasn't swanky and it was pretty basic. I'm pretty sure that my mother would have said 'No' and gone elsewhere but then she wasn't with us. We'd been on a pretty rough overnight journey and I could have slept on a bed of nails so the fact it was available immediately was a bit selling point. The room had a large bed with a big all-enveloping mosquito net that was clearly going to be needed since there were paddy fields between us and the river. The room was far from mosquito-proof with no glass in the back windows and lots of space where the walls met the roof. The loo and shower room were partitioned off with a wall that didn't go to the ceiling so this isn't for you if you get squeamish about hearing other people's bodily actions. If you are one of those people who puts lots of paper down the loo so nobody can hear you tinkle, then this probably isn't your dream room.
Outside the bathroom there was a washbasin in the main bedroom and there was a set of shelves built into an alcove to store our clothes and other things and a set of hooks for anything that needed to hang. The floor was simple with black tiles and the walls were a cheery combination of cream and very bright orange. We had opted for a non-AC room because we tend to prefer ceiling fans to the artificial chill of air conditioning but I don't think it would have been worth paying more since there was no electricity for large chunks of the day and night. It wasn't the cleanest place I've ever stayed but I could live with it and most of the dirt would have been solved if they had put a decent door mat outside since we had brought a lot of it in on our shoes. The shower always got hot sooner or later which isn't something you can take for granted in India even in more expensive hotels and the water pressure was good. I think each hut had its own water tank so there was no need to worry about someone else pinching all your hot water.
The room came with neither sheets nor towels so this is something to keep in mind as it's quite typical of really low-budget accommodation in India. We travel with towels and sheet sleeping bags so we weren't bothered by this but it's important to be prepared.
If at this stage you are thinking 'Koshkha's gone mad; she's staying in a hovel', let me take you outside for a moment onto the veranda. There's a large wooden hammock and a chair and just past the wooden rail that marks the edge of the accommodation there are paddy fields with pretty white ibis birds stepping neatly in and out of the stalks. Palm trees stand in lines running towards the river. Beyond them are massive ancient boulders of local stone and then just a bit further you come to the river. It's an idyllic view and it's all yours and you know that no amount of mosquitoes are going to stop you sitting out on the balcony watching the sun go down at the end of the day . OK, the room is not too special but this just might be the most peaceful and beautiful view in the whole of Hampi. As the last cottage in the row, we even had a tiny little pocket handkerchief sized garden beside the hammock. Who could resist? So there's no minibar, wi-fi or satellite TV, IDD telephone and such like but I'll remember the review long after I've forgotten any of those things in a regular hotel (especially since they tend to be memorable only if they don't work).
Arriving so early in the morning, the assistant had told us not to worry about paying in advance but to wait for the boss and pay later in the day. After a few hours sleep and a shower, we were ready to go off and see Hampi so we dropped in to ask if he wanted our passports and some money. A large group of very aggressive Israeli women were having a fight with the staff. Ramlal came over to see us, wobbled his head in that uniquely Indian way that says everything and nothing at the same time, and told us not to worry but to come back later. He was clearly embarrassed by the fight that was going on and didn't want to make us wait or for us to see these people so clearly losing their cool. As a word of advice to anyone travelling to India, getting stroppy with the locals just doesn't work. What we observed was a classic example of the Indian 'shut-down' face - a kind of refusal to get involved and a refusal to fight back that infuriates the heck out of anyone who is trying to have a fight. Like hedgehogs facing an aggressor, the staff just curled up with their prickles on the outside and let all the screeching wash over them. I suspect that it's a national trait that comes in very handy if you work in a call centre!
Later that evening we finally got the manager at a less busy time and quiet and he took all our passport details, entering them in a big ledger. He still didn't want any money - "You pay when you leave" he said with a shrug. I think they are used to people leaving earlier or later than they intend and he was happy to just roll with the punches. It's a lovely principle to live by.
~The 24-hour check-in system~
Something we came across during this trip was the idea of 24 hour check in. This means you can turn up at any time and your room is yours for blocks of 24 hours at a time. You don't have to pay extra for early or late check-out but you are due to leave by the same time that you arrived. Almost all of our accommodation arrivals on this trip were at silly times of the early morning which meant we were due to be kicked out on the streets at equally silly times. Since we had to leave on a night train to Bangalore, we didn't really want to be homeless from 7 am on our last day. Also knowing that we would struggle to find anyone to check-out with at that early hour, I asked if we could have the room for a little longer on the last day and Ramlal said it wasn't a problem. I asked if he wanted some extra money and he said again that it wasn't necessary. In each case when we asked for a little more time, nobody ever said 'no' but it's not something you should take for granted.
~Food Glorious Food~
As you'd expect for £6 a night, breakfast isn't included but it's readily available in the restaurant as are lunches and dinners. There were two dining areas to choose from - a covered area with low tables where you sit on the floor on mattresses and prop yourself up on cushions, or an open-air area with plastic tables and chairs. Since we usually had our lunch at a place that did the mattresses and cushions 'thing' we'd already learned that it looks more comfy than it is and there's a lot to be said for eating in a 'normal' position. The food was inexpensive, quickly served and plenty of choice was offered from a rather 'international' menu. OK, that's a polite way of saying we pigged out on pasta and pizza and didn't touch a curry for a few days. My only complaint was that some of the dishes really were too salty, and I say that as a lover of quite salty food; if I thought it was bad, then you can believe me that it must really have been quite extreme.
~What else is available?~
At the Mowgli - We had laundry done for 5 Rp a piece (about 6 pence) though some of it came back less than completely dry and none of it was ironed but what can you expect for that price? They offer internet access in the main office hut along with a small shop counter selling the sort of stuff you're almost certain to have forgotten to pack such as simple pharmaceuticals, toiletries and the odd paperback book in a variety of languages. Other than that you can make your own amusement - most people in Hampi aren't in a rush and it's a very laid back place where lying on your hammock for an afternoon still counts as 'doing something'.
In the area - I will write more about the temples and palaces on the other side of the river later but restrict the 'what else?' to activities on this side of the river. If you leave the Mowgli and just head back towards the boat there are plenty of places to eat and drink, watch the football on satellite (so long as the power doesn't go down), places to buy hippy clothes, bakeries selling the uniquely Indian interpretation of croissants and brownies, places to book your onward travel, places to hire a bicycle or arrange a guide to take you round the sites and you can get a massage or a yoga lesson if you look for it too. You can get someone to run up some clothes for you on an old sewing machine, get your washing done, get a haircut and all those other little things that make life just a bit more civilised.
If you want to stay in Hampi rather than outside, your choices are mostly limited to budget accommodation. Choose between being in the town which is noisier and less rural, or on the other side of the river which is more peaceful but needs a boat trip to get into the town and the boats stop before it gets dark. Bring towels and sheets or sheet sleeping bags and leave any prissiness about air conditioned perfection at home. Don't be surprised if you can't get a firm pre-booking anywhere without an expensive foreign currency money transfer but try not to worry if that's the case. Eat, drink and enjoy the sights - Hampi is one of the most unusual places I've ever been to in India and you need to adjust your sense of time and space and just relax and go with it.