Friday, October 22, 2010

Visiting India


India - Useful information before planning / going to India.

Traveling overseas sometimes seems cheaper then inter-city travel at times thanks to low cost carriers. Though I am not a BIG fan of AirAsia, a big kudos to then for really living their moto, Now Everyone Can Fly.

Our one way ticket to Chennai from Penang with added baggage cost around RM400. Really good deal, and it wasn't purchased during any of those super cheap promos I believe.
We pre-paid additional $$ in foresight of access baggage as the itinerary included visiting relatives. Interestingly the flight was 65% empty.

Getting to India.
First of all, here's a simple checklist:

For Malaysian citizens you will NEED a VISA (correct as of time of blog entry).
Many people are obviously aware that visa application can be done in the Indian Embassy in KL. Now here's the GOOD news.
For those in the northern region, there is an Indian Visa Agent in Penang.
Yes, thanks to my dad for the info. Their office is in same row as my dads. It is located on Chulia Street, a few shops down Kapitan Restaurant and Sykt Hussain Surani.

The Indian Visa Centre in Penang details:
GrandLotus India Visa Centre Penang
No. 105, Chulia Street, 10200 Penang
Tel : 04-2505000, 250 5001
Fax : 04-2505002

Visa application for tourism in my case took around 1 week, and the Visa is valid for around 6 months with double entry and a required gap of x (two months if I recall) before the 2nd entry.
It costs below RM200 for the total application. In the visa form it says apply for visa BEFORE purchasing ticket.

Well some of you start to think, hey, isn't India a Commenwealth Country, do I still need a visa, answer is yes.

Language
India is a large country, with the size of its states really large relative to States in Peninsula Malaysia. Most of the states have their own languages, however as a rule of thumb, most souther states like Tamil Nadu (Chennai), Tamil is most widely spoken, where as in states like Maharashtra - Mumbai (though Marati is it's state language) and states further north, Hindi is most commonly spoken. You should be able to survive with English, however for bargaining or getting around easier, some understanding of the local language will definitely help. Hindi Classes are available in Penang both island and Mainland, check out Learn Hindi in Penang

Currency
I recall last time there used to be a ruling on the maximum amount of Indian Rupees (INR or Rs) you can bring into India, however am not sure if that ruling is still valid. Anyway, for whatever amount allowed, I would suggest to convert your Ringgit Malaysia to some Rupees from here. In Penang itself there are many money changers, in the same area as the India Visa Agent, i.e Little India area in Georgetown. If you are in Bayan Baru, there is an Money Changer in Sunshie Square as well. For that case, I think even Queensbay Mall has one now. Surprisingly (or at least to my surprise) most banks do not provide forex change services except their Foreign Exchange Forex branches at the Airport, anyhow usually the rates are better at the Money Changer.
Be careful to look at the changed notes, I sometimes even jot down the serial number of each currency in worry of getting fake notes.

Withdrawing Money in India
Before going, I called a couple of banks I have account in, here's the summary

1. Maybank - You'll notice your ATM card has got the Visa Plus / Intralink Icon, so per Maybank call centre, any banks in India (or elsewhere) that show this symbols will enable cash withdrawal. I think the charges is RM12 per withdrawal.
NOTE - you will have to inform Maybank of your travel plans to enable international withdrawal - either permanent or provide time frame.
2. Bank Islam - Currently only tie up with Banks in Indonesia.
3. HSBC - I have a credit card with them not savings, Visa.

My experience
1. Maybank - I couldn't get my card to work at the few different bank branches I tried. Possibilities :
i. Just doesn't work.
ii. It could be the ATM machines in India still use the magnetic strip, and maybe my Maybank Kawanku card's strip is damaged. Remember in Malaysia we are 'advanced' (to avoid forgery) so we have implemented the Chip in the Cards.

2. Then it occurred to me, I already requested an ATM pin for my HSBC C/C Visa so let's try that. Any yes it WORKS!. I'm not sure how much the charges and the interest rates are going to be, lets see.

Credit Cards
Remember to inform your c/c company about your planned travel overseas, to avoid your card being blocked in fear of theft and mis-use.
Ok, again, Malaysia being advanced, you will notice your Credit Cards come with a Chip / IC on the front (the one that's gold plated, looks like your mobile phone SIM card).
During my few years travel to US as well, they had yet to implement the Chip Cards.
So in India, when I tried using my card it got rejected. Luckily I managed to read the text display on the Card Reader, " Use Chip Instead".
As it seems in India the magnetic strip (i.e where they 'swipe' you card across the reader) is still in use, you will have to explain to them to 'slot' in the card in the below slot in the same machine.
Alhamdulillah for that, that the Credit Card Reader Machine has BOTH the magnetic and CHIP reader.

Calling / Telephone / Mobile Hand Phone Sim Cards
Usually when traveling overseas for more then a few days, I get a local sim as receiving calls will be cheaper, and making callls cheaper. However arriving in Chennai, we came to realize that getting a new prepaid starter kit is now rather difficult due to security concerns.

Best option is to go to one of the branches itself as for my experience the re-seller was not very 'informative'. From my understanding, if your are born / working in Tamil Nadu (Chennai's State) you will need to provide proof of this and then get a SIM. If not rather difficult. For tourists / foreigners, besides providing a couple of Passport sized photograph, and your passport as proof you will need to provide a local contact (referee) person's full name and contact mobile number. So if going on a business trip, make sure to get details of your host. Otherwise check if the hotel manager is willing to be the local contact person.

Cost Of Things
Currently for RM1 you will get around Rs 14. However for RM1 in India you will get close to 1 -2 samosas not 14!. If fyou are using a smart phone you should be able to find a Forex Apps, I'm using FX Currency on my Milestone Android phone.
So actually cost of things are nearly the same after you convert, probably lunch at an Air Conditioned restaurance would cost your RM30, then here it would be around Rs 450.

Transportation
By the way, get familiarized with the term, A/C. A/C seldom refers to the Current vs Direct Current but is short for Air Conditioning. Most taxis and obviously all Auto Rickshaws (3 wheeler motorized vehicles) are Natural Air (non-AC).

Transport by Auto Rickshaws is relatively cheap except if you get fleeced. A 5 KM ride would cost your around Rs60 which comes to RM4.50 or something. So far in Chennai, the rides have all been fixed rates, no usage of meters. Reminds me of Malaysia...

The taxis are also actually not super expensive, especially since many ply the roads with Compressed Natural Gas. Now explain this to me, Malaysia produced CNG right? Why are we so slow to adopt it then at least in our public transport. My friend was saying CNG is actually expensive and possibly subsidized in India. ??

City taxis mostly use Meter. However so far in Chennai most transport is by Auto Rickshaws or 'pre-paid cars with drivers'. I.e if I need to go to the Airport with luggage, I don't stop a taxi but get the hotel to inform the transport provider to come over and wait. Do this earlier. One more thing that might come in useful :

Do Auto Rickshaws / 3 wheelers go to the Airport in Chennai - The answer is yes and no. They will take you to the airport, however they are not all allowed to drive to the main drop-off / pick-up zone, so what they would do is drop you at the shuttle drop-off zone, and from there you will have to take a shuttle to the main arrival / departure entrance. The shuttle ride is around 3 minutes only but I am not aware of the frequency of it. So personally if you are traveling light and have time to spare, then take the auto. If not, i.e if you have a lot of luggage, traveling in a group, or short of time, maybe consider the A/C or non A/C pre-paid / pre called meter taxis.
However probably the auto rickshaws would be faster in weaving through traffic. Your decision.


Take a close look at the above picture, notice something interesting? A number of the cars have side-mirrors but are folded in. Yes, traffic is that TIGHT people are probably worried that their side mirrors will get knocked off. To be fair, my MyVi has also lost its side mirror before hahah.
Distance between spots in Chennai appear further then they seem due to the heavy traffic and road conditions.

I remember Chennai being hot and humid. But this time round (Oct 2010) wheather seems pretty nice and relatively dry. Possibly the monsoon is delayed.
One tip on taking auto rickshaws or Taxis, ask them if they know the place, because sometimes they agree to take you to a destination but get lost (intentionally or not, not sure) and might ask more. Usually you can argue your way out but better to confirm, if not ask them to ask. Most drivers proactively ask people for directions if they are not familar with that area.

Chennai Aiport
Chennai airport is currently going thru upgrading. Below is the queue for the immigration clearance in Chennai Airport. By the way Chennai was formerly known as Madras, so the Airport code is still MAA.
Once you arrive, look for the pre-paid taxi counters, there are a few. The one we used was Fastrack Car Rental. Yes I got confused, initially I thought Fast Track Car Rental would be for Renting Self Drive Cars. Not necessary, they've got a fleet of drivers that take you to your destination. Somehow when I landed on through the Domestic Gates, the pre-paid booths were visible before exiting the arrival hall, however for International Flights I did not see the booths. Anyhow if you walk slightly ahead after exiting the arrival hall you should see a 2nd set of pre-paid taxi booths, as below.


I would strongly suggest take the pre-paid taxis, are you will have luggage and the rates are fixed. Indicate to the counter if you have extra luggage, then they'll try to arrange a larger vehicle possibly.

And as the world has it (same thing is Malaysia) getting from Airport to my hotel was cheaper then from hotel to Airport. Go figure.
Our ride on the Fast Track Taxi was pleasent, the drivers name Arul if I recall. Friendly, and recommended some good places for Khana / Sapde / Makan / Eating.

Shopping in Chennai.
So far did some shopping in Pondy Bazar in T.Nagar. There's a lot of shops on that row and also road side stalls selling their wares.
Nilu managed to negotiate from Rs150 to Rs 100 and better so that would probably be the negotiation range.
Look out for defects though.
Pondy Bazar mostly has cloths, ladies shoes, shorts. The shops include stainless steel and utensil stores, also selling Soda Maker.
Local tops, shirts, jeans etc are rather cheap, this could be attributed to possibly India producing its own cotton.

Books - it seems books are relatively a lot cheaper. Interestingly, there is even a 'road side' version (not sure legal or pirated, according to the seller it is legal, cheaper version) where you can get decent books from RM20 and below. Even at the bookstores, the books are cheaper mostly then in Malaysia. You can read more buying books and the experience plus a feel of how much books cost at Books at Chennai

On a Lighter Note
Every country has got its own set of culture, or way of doing things. Here's a few pointers I've noticed so far
1. Movie cinemas are more commonly known as Theatres (similar to some other Asian countries)
2. Junctions or cross roads - locals might use the term cut. i.e take right on 2nd cut would probably mean take right at the 2nd junction. Even in US some of us will find it peculiar, where people say "hang a right" and not take a right.
3. When agreeing or saying yes, locals mostly shake their head in a particular pattern, instead of nodding which might be more common for us. So be sure you understand clearly are they saying yes or no! :)
4. Restaurant vs Hotel. When you google hotels in India or see a sign board like Ananda Hotel, remember it is not neccessary an accomodation. In India, hotel also refers to restaurants. So double confirm, and probably look out for other words used together like accomodation / lodge etc.

Accommodation in Chennai
Cost of accommodation in Chennai is average. A decent hotel would cost you around RM100, and you should get better value nowadays (as of Feb 2011) with the strengthening Ringgit. We stayed in two different hotels:

1. Malles Manotaa in Periyar Road, T.Nagar. We also walked around after checking in, and definitely Malles Manotaa to us would be the best value for money. They have breakfast, rooms are fresh, and dine-in menu items are a good variety and reasonable.

2. A good option to find hotels in Chennai is to read the reviews. However there are probably some good ones that are not online as they might be new and only accept local credit cards. You can start your search here : Find Hotels, Rates and Reviews in Chennai

Eating in Chennai
InsyaAllah this will be another entry. :) Await the likes of Murugan Idli, Dhanda Jigar and differentiating a meals restaurant and non-meals.

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