Oct 25, 2011

That's A Wrap: India

Wow—so that’s it, we’ve just survived 3 months backpacking around South India with our 2 pre-schoolers, and relatively unscathed.  Before coming here, some people voiced their concerns about travelling to India with young children--one person even went so far as to say that India, as a destination, is only interesting for adults and that choosing to come here with children is selfish. 

We didn’t believe this nor did we experience it to be true.  We found India (the south anyway) to be quite a family-friendly destination, with lots to do to suit us all, from historic ruins, to beautiful temples and churches, to amusement and water-parks, and well-run zoos. 

We would highly recommend it to other families.  We actually really enjoyed our time there and have learned a lot more about the country and its people.  The Indian people are so family-oriented and have been very friendly and hospitable towards us as well as the kids.  

We must stress that the decision to visit only the south of India coupled with setting aside 3 months to do it in were probably keys to our success.  

Firstly we found the people in the south of India to be ‘gentler’ and more laid back too compared to their northern counterparts, and this made it easier and more pleasant for us as a family.  

Secondly, based on our previous experience here, we knew that India is such a large country geographically and travelling overland using only the bus and train would be very slow and very tiring, especially for and with the children.  As such, we decided to try to limit our travel days to ‘short trips’, ideally of 3-5hrs long.  Unfortunately this could not always be achieved, due to either unexpected delays or to unavoidable distances that needed to be covered.  But those trips were the exception.  We probably spent more time in places than most people probably would, and we also stopped in more places ‘just to break up the trip’.  Either way, we experienced the country at a good pace for all of us as a family--'family slow travel'.  

All in all, we spent time in 21 cities/towns/villages in 4 states, in 12 weeks.  

Inside one of our many buses--note the closed windows due to heavy rain!

Passing time on the train

As usual, we do have a few of our insights to share. On one hand, India surpassed our expectations and we could easily have spent more time here—our ‘What We Will Miss’ list.  But on the other hand, India is still a challenging destination, especially with young kids, so hence our ‘What We Won’t Miss’ list.   And of course, the ‘Nitty Gritty’ with regards to the dollars and cents of it all.


ü  The Food.  In particular, we’ll miss the thalis, masala dosa, lassi, masala chai and abundant fresh coconuts to drink. 

A delicious South Indian fish thali

ü  The Rich Diverse Culture.  There is always something happening that challenges you and that causes you deeper thinking.  Never a dull moment in India!

Man sleeping in the passageway of a temple with his leg.
ü  Family-Friendly Activities.  We especially loved the water and amusement parks, and Zoos, and all at a very low cost (even with ‘foreigner’ pricing).

ü  The Beaches of Goa.  Particularly in Palolem and in Arambol, the scene there was akin to that found in Thailand 10yrs+ ago—rustic, and cheap.

ü  Having a Farm All Around You.  Cows, water buffalo, goats and pigs, not to mention the stray dogs and cats, which roam freely in amongst the people, cars and motorcycles, and are even yielded to.
Petting a stray cow


X        The Pollution & Noise.  The constant dustiness, pollution from exhaust as well as fumes from the common practise of burning of garbage are not only draining but a threat to your health.  The noise pollution from the constant beeping of horns is also taxing.

X        Overland Travel.  Travelling in India is a slow and painful process, especially with 2 preschool children in tow.  Geographically, it’s a big country and distances between places of interest can be great.  The local buses are rickety, uncomfortable and without air conditioning; the seats are hard and narrow.  They would be lucky to reach a top speed of 50km/hr, but on average tended to travel about 30km/hr with numerous stops to pick up and drop off.  We once took 2hrs to cover 50km, and our worst was travelling 100km in 4hrs, plus a 1hr layover and 3 changes of buses.  Special direct ‘Tourist’ buses are only available on popular routes in and out of popular centres like Chennai, Bangalore, Hampi, and Goa, but unless you were going directly between these places (which we usually weren’t), they weren’t of much use.   The roads are usually full of pot holes and covered in dust so you emerge from your trip filthy and tired.  Train travel is not much better either, maybe unless you were travelling in the more expensive and exclusive ‘air conditioned’ class, which we never did.  Most routes were very busy and the reserved seating was a joke as even with it you still had to fight for your seat.  A typical seat was a padded bench for 3 people, but this never stopped 4-5 people trying to cram into it.   Getting on and off the trains were always a hectic affair too, with much pushing and shoving involved.
And all these people managed to squeeze into this bus!

X        Lack of Wi-Fi access.  Surprisingly little has advanced in terms of internet access since our visit in 2003.  While prices at the internet cafes are still about the same, ranging from 0.25 cents to $1.25 USD/Rs15-50 per hour, unfortunately Wi-Fi availability at hotels and guest houses, at the budget end of things anyway, is virtually non-existent, not to mention at restaurants and cafes.  We’ve become spoilt for this in SEA and having to resort to internet cafes is not only inconvenient for us (due mostly to having to juggle minding the children) but also poses a security issue to for banking, etc.  After one particular trip to an internet cafe, I returned to find that I also had 649 viruses on my memory stick!

X        Limited Food Choices For Our Children.   When we asked our kids what they would not miss about India, they both replied, ‘The spicy food.’  It was challenging to be able to find meals for them that they didn’t find too spicy, especially if the restaurant or town happened to be ‘Pure Vegetarian’, which meant ‘no eggs’.  Otherwise, egg omelettes, and Chinese dishes such as fried rice and fried noodles (veg or non-veg) became reliable staples.  In any case, neither kid lost weight while we were in India; in fact, our youngest even put a bit on!

X        Very Hard Beds.   More often than not, we found the beds to be similar to that of sleeping on the floor, which was a bit too hard for our comfort!

X        Photo Requests.  Particularly for our kids, they won’t miss being asked to have their photo taken for the umpteenth time by (Indian) strangers.

From Maddy's Perspective

The Nitty Gritty

Luckily for us, the exchange rate for the US Dollar to the Indian Rupee (RS) is at a record high at the moment.  When we first arrived it was around Rs44, but soared to Rs48 by the end of our 83 nights.  

Based on an average exchange rate of $1 USD to Rs 46, our daily expenditures was approximately $41.09 USD per night for all 4 of us.  This included our room, food, activities, bottled water, travel expenditures, internet usage, vaccinations, as well as personal purchases. 

While this is by far the lowest daily expenditure that we’ve had in a country so far on this trip, the costs in India have increased significantly for accommodation and food since our last visit in 2003.  Even the locals agree, with many pointing the finger at increased petrol prices as the cause.  In fact, while we were in Cochin, Kerala, we experienced a 12hr state-wide strike by the transportation sector.  All buses, tuk tuks, and ferry services were suspended between 6am to 6pm, and petrol stations were also closed.  Shops also closed to support them as after all, transport services affect the prices that they procure their goods for too.  For us as tourists, it made for a very errily quiet day, as not only could we not go anywhere, but even the shops around us were closed.  However the price of train tickets (a national service) apparently hasn’t increased for the past 8yrs, but is tipped to do so soon.  

We found food prices also noticeable higher this time around, but we do not know if this is attributed to the south being more expensive than the north of India.

Interestingly we also noticed quite a bit of difference between states, not only in terms of culture and experiences but also in certain instances, for our costs.  We found room prices as well as quality differed significantly, with Tamil having the highest cost coupled with the lowest quality, and Goa being the cheapest as they offered ‘low season’ pricing.  We found Kerala state to have the best value for rooms, with lower rates for low season and very clean rooms on average.  

All in all, we were really glad that we went to India with our 2 children.  They experienced so much, soaking in all that was around them every moment of the day.  Simple things like watching the man make 'chai' tea then became incorporated in their play.  So many of these experiences became windows of opportunity to discuss matters that we most probably wouldn't have had.  Definitely it was hard at times, but it was well worth it.  In fact in some ways, we wish we had a bit more time to spend in South India (mostly to be on the beaches of Goa!).  But 3 months was definitely a good amount of time there and we saw what we wanted to see, and more.

Another beautiful sunset in India.


  1. Awesome. Great to hear your perspective. Our family lived in Tamil Nadu for about 5 months in 2010. Our kids had mixed feelings on the experience :) My oldest (8 at the time), LOVED the spicy food and the 'girl stuff'- bangles, sarees, and bindis.

    My youngest (6, 5 and 3) DID NOT like the spicy food, and hated the 'kisses' i.e. pinched cheeks.

    Loved the prices, hated the smells. Loved the culture and the people.

  2. Our kids were lucky--mostly just got asked to pose in pics, although the youngest got her cheeks pinched too, but took it in stride. Our eldest hated the smells, but it's the same in Asia in the markets (raw meat) but the outdoor toilets in india too, but you learn to breath through your mouth!!

    What did u do there? We found Tamil Nadu beaches the least clean.

    Thanks for visiting us!

  3. This was good to read. I was in India for several months in 200-2001 and am hoping to take my family there in the next year or two. I was never in the south, so that's all unfamiliar territory to me. We have good friends who live in Arambol, so maybe that would be a good place for us to visit.

  4. South India was new to me too (and to hubby in terms of slow travel and with a family to consider) and we highly recommend it! Arambol was good, but Palolem in the south was better we thought.

  5. I'm laughing at people saying India is a selfish place to take kids - seriously.. there's animals on the streets, bright colours everywhere, stuff to watch all the time, fabulous food and drinks, beaches, hammocks, autos, trains, fascinating temples.. I could go on and on about all the things my kids love about it - we just got back from our 3rd trip there with the kids (aged 5 and 3) and they're asking to move there!!!

  6. Kirsty--we couldn't agree with you more. The incredible part is that some of it is said by the locals in India, but i suspect that they are of the 'middle class' that have a prejudiced view. It's sort of the same everywhere--foreigners appreciate your country more than you do, sometimes out of ignorance, but hey, ignorance can be bliss they say, and in any case gives you more of an open mind.

    thanks for taking the time to comment.

  7. My family is currently living in Chennai while my husband works here. We have been here for two months and have four more to go. We are finding it quite challenging. We are fortunate to have a wonderful hotel to stay in but the day to day living is not enjoyable. Our kids are a bit younger than yours and my son (almost 4) hates being looked at and touched everywhere we go but my daughter at 15months absolutely loves it.
    It is definitely a fascinating place and we will take away a lot of memories. But I will be pleased to leave to be honest.
    I'm finding your blog a great read by the way. Interesting to read how other people find India. Interesting that you say Tamil Nadu has the dirtiest beaches. That makes me look forward to travelling elsewhere while we are here. :)

    1. Chennai wasn't one of our favourite destinations in South India--so very crowded. In fact, the picture of all the people trying to cram on the bus in this post was taken in Chennai! I can imagine that you would find it difficult there on a day to day basis with 2 young children. At least you have a nice hotel for a retreat! Perhaps you can post in the 'Travel with Children' section of the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum to try to get ideas of things to do in Chennai as an expat, or even better--connect with other expats with children living there.

      At first, we really were impressed with the beaches in Tamil Nadu (Mamallapurum), but once we got to Goa, we were regretting that we spent so much time there! Goan beaches are so much cleaner and nicer and the people don't use their beach as a 'toilet with a view'.

      Do check out Dizzy World south of Chennai though--the water park there is much better for little ones. The one in Mysore was good too, but they didn't allow dad's in the kiddie pool!

      You should also get down to Pondycherry--you'll definitely find it a breath of fresh air! LOTS of european (french) expats living there too it seemed. A very doable weekend trip.

      Good luck with the rest of your time in India--as a tourist, it's certainly interesting!

  8. Thank you so much for your awesome informative blog! I have searched through blogs about travelling with children in India, including forums, and yours is by far the best. I went to India in my early 20's (mostly south) and it was so cool to see pictures of where I went. I have always wanted to take my family there, and reading your blog this past month was our inspiration that it is TIME! I am now dreaming of India again and planning out our own costs/when/where/what to see. When I went (2000) internet barely existed and Lonely Planet guide was the way to go. Would you find this still the case? Also what time of year were you there as I am curious price-wise between high and low season. Our kids are 7 and 9, so squishing into a double bed will not work for our family, so I am assuming our accomodation cost will have to be quite a bit higher.
    Anyway, a thousand thank you's for the inspiration!
    We are all very excited!

    1. hi
      we used our 'South India' LP guide exclusively and found it to be quite useful for the maps and general info. we don't tend to seek out it's restaurants or accommodations usually though as there are always plenty to choose from.

      We were there from August to October, in the South only. Previously, we've been in the North in Sept to November, and I remember it being VERY chilly in the hill stations (Darjeeling, Sikkim) and Dharmasala, etc.

  9. Hi :)
    I've just come across your blog in doing some research for a potential trip to Goa. I have some friends getting married and we would love to attend. My only hesitation at this point is that our 3 year old (at time of travel) daughter will then have a 4 month old sibling. I'd love to hear some insights on whether travel with an infant in India is achievable or just not worth the risks. :)

    1. Why not? There are lots of babies in India 😜 If bubs will still be breastfeeding, it'll be a piece of cake, But you'll have lots of people at home telling you not to go 😞