Some 8 years later I am rereading this article with a smile on my face. I have since travelled a lot in India staying at very basic accommodation – from dung floors to basic toilet facilities, to no-privacy shared accommodation. Yet I always feel very safe and have always had everything I needed. Sometimes I also stay at 5 star hotels. Both are good. But there is something that is more intimate about staying in basic accommodation, something that gets you so close to the people and culture that I love it. Please enjoy my first impressions and advice.
It really is very easy to travel cheaply in India. It is also possible to travel very very expensively in India. Your choice.
Although I have had the odd experience in India of cheaper accommodations, it was limited and I had not travelled around India staying only in low cost hotels.
Our first stop was Tiruvannamalai. We stayed in a pilgrim hotel. I am not sure if this is a commonly used term, but it is what we called these hotels. The truth is, these towns are not large business centres, but they are large and auspicious spiritual centres, so they are likely to cater for pilgrims as their main source of business.
Anyway, The Trishul in Tiruvannamalai was probably a good hotel as far as pilgrim hotels go, but it was my first time in this style of accommodation. It was about 10 bucks a night. I was a bit nervous, not really knowing what to expect.
I was amazed. In each pilgrim hotel that we stayed in (there were 4 or 5 different ones that we stayed in throughout Tamil Nadu) , we had precisely what we needed. Each room had 2 beds, aircon, overhead fan and TV. We rarely used the aircon and never watched the TV. So you see, we really did have everything that we needed.
This hotel is on Rameshwaram Island.
Can you tell Swamis and Yogis are in residence here?
Most hotels had hot water. No showers, tho. When there was a shower head in the bathroom, it didn’t work. But each bathroom had 2 buckets and a small plastic jug. We became very proficient at bucket bathing – I have done this before in Goa, but this time had a lot more practice.
I grew to love the attention with which you wash yourself when bucket bathing. I loved the space that these bathrooms had, not restricted by shower cubicles or shower curtains. It was actually hard to give this up when we reached our final hotel, which was a bit more that 10 bucks a night and had a working shower in our room. I requested (and got) a bucket and jug, and sometimes continued the little bathing ritual.
Although I did not get to bucket bath on a rooftop, it is quite common, and makes a lot of sense.
Even bucket bathing with cool water is not bad in the heat of the day. It is actually not necessary to have hot water. In some hotels, we discovered that hot water, although available, was not automatically provided, but would be allocated to your room if you requested it. As I said, it was not always necessary to have.
A Green Towel
Most hotels, but not all, had towels, although you might have to ask for them (along with the hot water). One of our hotels did not supply towels at all, so we did a quick run down the side streets till we found a stall selling towel material in a very large reel – you can buy it in any size that you want. The store owner will measure off your required length, and cut it for you. I bought a lovely green strip, and after using it in the hotel, it became my protective seat on temple floors and on the beach-side rocks where I would meditate in the morning.
This is not my towel, but it is similar.
[Aside, quietly: Also, it might be likely that toilet paper will be lesser quality than you would like, or might be in short supply (or even non-existent, it being a Western thing after all). If you need to buy toilet paper, some street stalls will have it, but please ask discretely. Very very discretely if you are woman asking male stall holder. Generally, it may be under cover in the stall, or towards the back.]
As Safe as Houses
Another thing I loved about these hotels was the complete safety – never once did I feel unsafe or threatened. Generally, there was 1 or more people constantly in the corridor outside the room. Always looking after the guests, and ready to provide some bottled water, more towels, or take your laundry.
They even sleep there. 24 hour service. 24 hour safety. 24 hour smile and ready to assist in what ever way you need. Coffee at 4:30am because you are heading out to the temple service at 5? No worries. It will be there and it will be good.
The Notion of Privacy
One thing that took a little getting used to is the tendency for people to just walk into your room. A quick knock, then into the room with your bottle of water, returned laundry, bug spray or whatever.
But I got used to it, I did. Very quickly actually. It is just a different sense or notion of privacy, and that makes sense where people live so closely together. It began to feel like one big family to me, where of course they would wander in at any time. (But sometimes if I needed to, I just locked the door.)
The doors all had big slide locks on the outside of them. I wondered if anyone ever gets locked in. But it seems that they don’t.
Laundry, price by the piece
At one hotel we all were desperate to have laundry done. An excellent man came to take our garments with a promise to return them the next day. All the laundry came back together, sort of in order, but not entirely. So there was some hilarious sifting through the laundry of others looking for all of your dupatas, salwarz, chemises and more delicate items. We finally worked it all out, with a lot of laughing. Then our most excellent laundry man, a beautiful person, visited each room, counting our items and then charging by the number of pieces.
I loved these hotels. Generally they were close to the centre of town and very close to the temple. They might be (usually are) down a backstreet, but in the time I was in India, I walked around these towns at all times of the day and night without incident. Maybe I would not do this in a city, but the villages that we visited, I was not at all worried.
In Ramaswaram we awoke every morning at 4am to the sound of the temple band somewhere outside our hotel, and we drifted in and out of sleep as the first temple ceremonies were performed, the band played loudly, and then bhajans were played over loud speakers till about 5:30. If you wandered out into the streets at this time, most of the town was awake, women were sweeping floors and front porches, rangoli were being drawn, stalls were being arranged. Fabulous. So many tourists miss this time of the day.
Yes, India, I will be back more often now I know I can do pilgrim hotels, green towels, bucket baths and laundry by the piece.
If I have misunderstood some things, or missed any essentials out, or plain got some things wrong, please feel free to let me know in the comments. I would really appreciate it.