Destination: Pune, India, May 2018
India had always been a destination that I had planned to travel to, so when the opportunity to combine a trip with my love for sport, it seemed like the perfect timing! The Indian Premier League cricket tournament held each year has rapidly become the highlight of the indian sporting calendar. Through an association with Australian clothing company, Big Dogg Clothing, I had the opportunity to meet with many of the players and go to games.
I also took the opportunity to ensure I had time to dedicate to seeing the sights and experiencing the culture of one of the most fascinating travel destinations in the world. My first stop on a 18 day tour around India would be Pune.
I fly into Mumbai with flydubai. Where I can, I prefer to fly with flydubai as their rates are always the best and I dont tend to need add ons like inflight meals or entertainment, so I prefer to pocket the savings.
I had originally planned to fly into Chennai, however the team playing in Chennai had been forced to move their games due to ongoing protests that had begun to affect the cricket games. So, instead I moved my flight to land in Mumbai and transfer from there to Pune, where Chennai would now play their home game.
Landing at Mumbai airport was far less dramatic than I imagined. Perhaps it was because it was 6:00am, but there was almost no crowd and getting through immigration was really quick. As Australian passport holder, I require only an online visa to enter India - be aware you need to complete this process at least 4 days prior to travel and the online form is quite long. You dont really receive any offical visa or even a pdf - only an email which you can print and take with you.
I spoke to a lot of people about internal transport in India. I had initially intended to use trains as my main way of getting from city to city, however was warned against this for several reasons - there can be long delays, lots of cancellations, they are extremely crowded during holiday times (when I was there) and that using private cars can be far easier. In some situations, even the process of booking train tickets can be a frustrating process - see the review on Agra! So, with that in mind, I actually found using Uber to be a really reliable way to get around India! It was safe, relatively clean and not too expensive. I caught an Uber from from Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (Sahar International) (map) to Pune for Rs3,600 ($50) and it took just over 3 hours. It was an easy drive and we stopped on the way for food.
I always like to stay connected when I travel - partly to keep up on social media and sports results (no seriously.....), but mostly to remain contactable for family. So I try and get a sim card in the country I land in and load it with internet data. India was one of the more difficult places I have found to get a sim card - so be prepared to use your home sim and pay for some roaming! The shop at the airport weren't open until 10am which was the first problem. Next even at teh shops in Pune, I required a letter from the hotel (police clearance form), my passport, the print out of my visa and a passport photo - so have all these things with you. Even when purchased, the sim card took 2 days to activate. The coverage from my Vodafone sim was average at best. The only positive was that the internet was very cheap!
Where To Stay:
I stayed at Hotel Saga Plaza (map) and found it to be overall very disappointing. The hotel is quite dated, with old furniture and fittings. The rooms are adequate and if you are just looking for a place to sleep it may be sufficient. The disappointing aspect for me was that the staff appeared to show very little interest in their guests, to the point of ignoring you at the front desk - which is not something i had encountered to that extent in many hotels before!
Depending on your budget and expectations, I would likely look elsewhere in Pune. For the same price you are likely able to find somewhere better.
What To Do:
Pune is largely an academic city, with many top Universities. As a consequence the city is home to a lot of younger people either studying or working.
I found the easiest way to get around in most cities in India was via rickshaw - they are cheap, easy to find and for themes part faster than anything else.
I caught a rickshaw to the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum (map) - which is a quirky collection of everyday items used in Indian life - everything from spoons, typewriters, doors, artwork and statues. Its an interesting look back at how cultures in Indian have lived over time. Cost is Rs200 for foreigners and extra to use a camera (Rs500). The museum is open from 10am to 5pm.
From there I went to Shaniwar Wada Fort (map)- a palace once occupied by the Peshwar rulers. It was built in 1732 and largely damaged by fire in 1828. The huge fort walls and remained as did the enormous gateway, which was built so large because at the time, the rulers would arrive to the palace on the back of elephants. It is an easy walk around the walls of teh fort and lots of local families come of an afternoon to enjoy the gardens. Entry is Rs200 for foreigners and the gates are open 9am to 5pm
Somewhere unique to visit close to Pune, which I dignity have time for is the Osho Meditation Resort. There are a long list of conditions, costs and procedures associated with entering the resort as a day guest. It is a luxurious property based around the practices Oshu (Bhagwan Three Rajneesh) a flamboyant "guru" who advocated sex as a pathway to enlightenment!
There is a fun nightlife scene in Pune and somewhere nice to visit on a weekend evening is Classic Rock Coffee Company (map)- a really laid back venue that hosts a lot of live music, including from local performers. It has a very chilled atmosphere and is a great place o go for a drink with friends or to meet people.
Pune is a great place to try some traditional Maharashtran cuisine. Definitely find a restaurant serving traditional Thali style meals - you are presented with a large metal plate and the server will come and offer a range of foods which are placed around teh plate and eaten by hand. The dishes are vegetarian and range from very mild to moderately spiced. You will generally have rice, a range of dal, vegetables, pickles, chutneys and breads. It is an experience in itself to not just try the food, but the serving and eating. I ate at Shabree (map) and the food was full of flavour - definitely worth a try when visiting Pune.
There are a number of street food options everywhere in Pune. For the most part during my stay in India, I resisted the temptation of trying the genuine street food from the small stands. I normally love sampling all sorts of street food when I travel, but since i had a tight schedule and cricket games to get to, I didn't take the risk!
Pune has quite a strong food culture with cuisines from all over the world. It is home to India's only dedicated food magazine - Trofii, so this will be a good start if you are visiting Pune and looking for some culinary inspiration!. I was lucky enough to have dinner with the magazine's director & editor, Vidhya (Instagram: @vidhyatiwari) who shared a lot of insight into the food scene in Pune and India.
My favourite thing to do in almost any city I travel to is to get out and walk around. I will usually try to find out where the local markets are, as thats usually the best place to find as many local people and get a great insight into a city's culture.
Shree Shiva Chhatrapati Market (Pune Yard Market) (map), the local market in Pune is relatively small and is not somewhere to visit for vegetarians or those who get a little queasy. Compared to some other markets I would visit in places like Bangalore, this market isn't really a on the same level. But for me its more about getting out, walking the streets, meeting local people and chatting with them about their lives.
My main inspiration to visit India this time was the cricket! So my first IPL really was a highlight! Due to circumstances, this match had been shifted from Chennai to Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium. The stadium isn't actually in Pune and the traffic getting from Pune to the ground meant I probably could've stayed in Mumbai and driven from there! That said, the experience of being in the crowd for a game featuring MS Dhoni's Chennai (who would go on to win the tournament) and Virat Kholi's Bangalore was unforgettable. The atmosphere in the stadiums is intense and the passion the fans have not just for teams, but for individual players is incredible. If you love sport and even more, if you love cricket, make a point of visiting India during the IPL!
Number 1 Travel Tip:
A huge concern for travellers visiting India is staying healthy! For the most part I avoided getting really sick by only drinking bottled water/juices/soft drinks (make sure the seals are genuine and haven't been refilled), not drinking ice cubes, avoiding salad and not eating at the small food stands. I still ate at a lot of local restaurants and cafes and had few issues.
I did take with me all the precautions in terms of electrolytes and immodium in case there was an issue, I got me vaccinations up to do date before I flew and was cautious about hygiene. Standards in India will range from genuine 5 star luxury to literally seeing people defecate in the street next to a restaurant! If you are careful and do a few basic things, you should be fine. I will write a blog on "staying healthy in India soon".
Whilst I never felt unsafe in Pune, or in India for that matter, taking care when crossing roads and in traffic is a priority! The roads are busy, nobody indicates and a short toot o the horn is the only warning you will get as a rickshaw or taxi flies past you!