Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Trip to Mysore

Two posts that I read recently convinced me that I should blog about a trip to Mysore (home of the Mysore bonda) that my family took. The first is this post from Kiruba Shankar. The connection between that post and this one will be obvious very shortly. The second post is this old post by Vikrum Sequeira. The connection between that post and this one is not so obvious and you will have to wait to the end of this post to find out.

We spent nearly a week in the state of Karnataka in Southern India. We were there primarily to visit the Kabini River Lodge in Nagarahole National Park. That stay deserves a post in itself, so this post will describe the journey.

The start of the journey was leaving our nice hotel room at the Accord. We checked out very late (7:00 P.M.) but the Accord gave us permission to do so. This is something different in India: hotels and other places really go out of their way to accommodate people, (well, people like our family with some money). We then boarded a sleeping train for an overnight journey to Mysore.

My son absolutely loved the sleeping train. He loved climbing on the bunks and looking out the window and maybe just the fact that this was like a hotel on wheels. I absolutely hated it. It was one of the worst nights I have spent in years. I didn’t sleep more than an hour: the bunk was so hard and uncomfortable.

I’ve gotten soft over time. Ten years ago, I didn’t mind but now I do. I told my parents later that I’m getting too old for that type of thing and my father (who is 40 years older than me) laughed and said, “welcome to the club, but I didn’t think you would join so soon.”

One thing I didn’t like about the train was the toilet. It really reeked. And my son had an accident trying to use it (on a shaky train) and needed to change clothes. I tend to overreact in such situations and get all flustered. My wife gets irritated: “Why are you telling the whole train that he had an accident?” It never occurred to me to care what other people on the train might think.

We then went to the Lalitha Mahal Hotel. Here is a picture of the Lalitha Mahal Hotel (via Kiruba Shankar).
It turns out that Kiruba visited the same hotel just this week so there are many other views of this hotel there. We saw all of those places – excellent photos.

The hotel used to be the summer vacation palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. The main palace is in the heart of Mysore and we visited that as well. The hotel was nice but the room was only comfortable – a big step down from the Accord. The room had a funny odor that bothered my wife a lot. I think it was the bed covers. I don’t think they had been washed in years. We learned to remove those immediately and keep them in a drawer. A curious custom in Indian hotels is to come around at 6:00 and remove the bed covers. Well – we already had done that.

We spent much of the day just recovering from the (terrible) train trip. I think it would have been more sensible to fly into Bangalore and take a car to Mysore. But, anyway, I eventually got up and walked around the nice gardens at the hotel.

The food at the hotel was good. We ate the Mysore Thali that offered an excellent sampling of local foods. My son tried the spaghetti – which was a mistake.

In the afternoon, we visited the palace of the Maharaja’s. It is enormous. Obviously, being a Maharaja was a good life. Here is one photo and a link to a description of the palace.

We went to the Kabini River lodge, had a wonderful stay, and then returned to Mysore to the Lalitha Mahal Hotel. We then spent the day doing some shopping. We spent much of it in a government run handicraft store. The government subsidizes the local artists so that the crafts do not die out. But I saw no need for a government intervention: there was plenty of market in the U.S. and other places for this artwork. You could get nice carved elephants, furniture, paintings, inlaid wood scenes, and other wonderful things, for very good prices. If anything, the government intervention here seemed to be stifling competition and variety (the artists seemed to be in a rut in terms of themes).

On the way back to the train station, the driver could not find room for our luggage in the car so he put it in a rack on the roof (which is not at all uncommon). What was odd and made me very upset when I found out is that he had not bothered to strap the luggage down. He told my father-in-law that it was just a short trip to the train station and he would be careful driving there. Well, luckily for us, none of the luggage fell off, but I saw no reason to take such a risk. But one reason why he was lazy was because he lacked bungee cords (the big rubber-band like straps that hold luggage). India still tends to use rope and rope takes time to use. I did see one car with bungee cords but that was the exception. They cost more, but they save time. It is interesting that the idea of paying a little more for a device that save a little time each trip is not popular in India but taking a risk (with someone else’s very expensive luggage) to save some time is something Indians will consider.

I slept a little better on the train back to Chennai. Going back to the Accord, I felt all disheveled since I had not shaved or bathed and had slept in my clothes. I joked with my wife that I was reminded of the scene in the film “Die Another Day” in which James Bond walks into a swanky Hong Kong hotel after escaping from prison. He has a long beard. He is only wearing pajamas and looks like he hasn’t bathed in years. But with his normal James Bond swagger and aplomb, he just strolls into the hotel like he owns it. The fact that he has no way to pay for anything bothers him not a bit. My wife appreciated the analogy.

This is where the post from Vikram Sequeira fits in. He describes how people from lower classes in India are excluded from places like Barista (a coffee house chain much like Starbucks). In many cases, the people themselves feel they don’t belong in there. I think is somewhat natural to ask the question, “Do I belong here?” if you are not dressed appropriately or if you haven’t bathed recently. But I didn’t really feel that way entering the Accord. I knew that I was welcome in there even if I didn’t smell very pleasant. After all, the showers were right there in our room. But unlike James Bond, I didn’t have to bluff about paying for it.


  • Hi Michael,

    Thanks for mentioning my Barista post.

    I've also visited the Maharaja's palace and found it to be impressive.

    I liked the article, but I disagree with you about the government emporiums. I particularly enjoy going to the government emporiums for a bunch of reasons:

    1. The merchandise is authentic, and not fake. When I went to the government crafts emporium in Assam, I was glad that the authenticity of the goods was verified. After all, I know nothing about Naga masks, muga silk saris, or Assamese bamboo jewelery. Buying the stuff from the emporium ensured that the masks were made by Naga tribesmen and they were not Chinese knockoffs.

    2. I hate bargaining. While I speak Hindi and can bargain to a fair price, I always feel that one person is getting cheated. Now you may argue something along the lines of "the market forces made it so the buyer and seller agreed to a price and this is the equilibrium." But I ask you to see this outside of economics. If a person has really worked hard on something and he needs to sell it to put food on the table, then he or she may sell it at a price below what it is worth in order to survive. That's not fair to the seller. On the other side of the coin, I hate getting ripped off and paying too much.

    3. In the government emporiums, most of the money goes to the people who made the crafts in the first place. This is in contrast to other bazaars, in which the middlemen make all the money and the makers of the craft do not get their fair share.

    4. I previously mentioned the Assam government emporium, which I liked. In Bangalore in August, I visited the government crafts fair (normally in Delhi around Diwali time), in which there were booths with crafts from every state in India. I loved this fair for a bunch of reasons:

    - The quality of the goods was outstanding.
    - No bargaining. Everything was fixed prices.
    - All of the money went straight to the producers (i.e. no middlemen).
    - All of India was represented, including the Himalayan states, the northeast, the north, south, etc.

    On a different note, I have a question:

    When you and your family went to national parks/tourist sites, were you able to get the Indian rate (since your wife is Indian), or did you get the overpriced foreigner rate? What about your son?

    By Blogger Vikrum, at 11:32 AM  

  • Hi Vikrum
    Thanks for the long comment.
    I liked the craft emporiums also and bought lots of nice things there. Some time I will have to blog about the three large wooden elephants we got. However, I just did not see the value added of the government getting involved here.

    1. The issue of authenticity is important but there is a better way to handle it. The government could regulate: they could say that if you claim that your craft is authentic you must back up your claim with a certificate.

    2. I hate to bargain also. But I don't think it is the government's role to outlaw it (they could, of course). If everyone hated bargaining, fixed price stores would take over. This happened in the U.S. and may happen in India as well. But I bet a lot of people in India love to bargain. Then preventing bargaining doesn't really help in general (although it might seem good to you and me it would be bad for others).

    3. There is always a big difference between wholesale and retail prices - for a reason. The retailer has to cover his risk: a lot of his merchandise will never sell. He has to eat that at a big loss someday. So if a retailer is marking up stuff by more than 50%, it probably indicates that 1) his overhead is high and 2) his probability of selling that good is not that high.

    If the market is competitive, and retail markets always are, the expected profit margins will be very thin - I guarantee it. But that isn't to say that a Walmart couldn't come in and really clean house. They would operate at a larger, more efficient, scale of operation.

    4. There really is nothing preventing craftsmen from having crafts fairs. There are lots of them in the U.S. The government doesn't have to organise and run them.

    But there is absolutely nothing wrong with liking the government run stores if you do like them. I liked the stuff they sold in there. I would be curious if they ran at a profit or at a loss.

    On the issue of whether we paid the Indian rate or the out of country rate, I'm not really sure. My father-in-law arranged for everything. I think the cost was about $50 dollars a day per person and my son was half price. It was definitely a great bargain - and it included 3 great meals a day. I would definitely recommend it.

    Later, I arranged for a trip to Kerela. The Taj hotel at Varkala (which isn't all that nice actually) insisted on charging the international tariff on both rooms even though my wife's parents are Indians. Won't stay there again.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:06 PM  

  • Mysore's also home to Mysore rasam, "Mysore" masala dosa, and most importantly, Mysore pak (which you must have had. No trip to south India is complete without it). It's also one of my fav cities (with a very laid back and friendly attitude, and polite people).

    Nice little points you bring out here........little points that (if the tourism industry picks up) will go some way in improving obvious problems.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 7:52 PM  

  • Hi Sunil
    Maybe we should have spent more time in Mysore. We were so wasted after the train trip that we didn't do much the rest of the day (we did see the palace). We only ate in the hotel - which was expensive but good.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:19 PM  

  • You should've spent some more time in Mysore. The Chamundi Hills & KRS Botanical gardens are certainly not worth missing at this time of the year..
    (Trust me, I've practically lived all my life in mysore)
    Nice post anyway.. offers a different perspective.

    By Blogger S, at 7:30 AM  

  • Michael,
    The Lalith Mahal hotel is used extensively in film shootings in song sequences. The exteriors and interiors are awesome.

    The hotel falls under the Central government and hence the upkeep may not be upto the mark.

    By Blogger Kaps, at 10:27 AM  

  • Hi S and Kaps
    S: Yes, I'm sure Mysore has a lot to offer. But on the other hand, I kind of glad we took a relaxing journey through India. We spent 5 days in Kerela and just lazed by the pool. It was just wonderful, (except I think I spent 25% of the time waiting for someone to give me my coffee at the restaurant).

    Kaps: The Hotel is extremely picturesque and would make the perfect backdrop for a movie. I didn't see any evidence that they weren't keeping up the hotel. The only issue with it was it really wasn't a very good deal. For the money, the rooms were small and the beds were not that comfortable. But it was fairly nice. The gardens were beautiful and the dining room was spectacular.

    Besides the Accord and the Kabini River Lodge, I think the other hotels we stayed at were really expensive considering what we were getting. It seemed even more expensive than comparable hotels in the U.S.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:45 AM  

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