Travel to Chennai in Southern India
Discover What You Didn't Expect
It was my first time in Chennai, India. I had some minor expectations but they were drastically altered upon arriving at the Chennai Airport.
Surprise! It’s not for the claustrophic nor the newbie traveler who has never been anywhere.
Let me start by saying Chennai or even India was not on my travel bucket list. I went there because I was invited to a wedding. And if it wasn’t for that wedding I’m not sure if I would had ever gone as I still have so many other places in the world on my travel bucket list to see. Yet, this wedding made all the difference to experience something beautiful that I never expected to find.
So before you write me off as a “Western Woman of White Privilege” or some such nonsense, read the rest of my post. Understand I’m a world traveler, open to new experiences. I love meeting people from different cultures, that’s a big part of why I’m in the Travel Industry. I’m just relating my trip as I experienced it.
Customs Clearance in Chennai, India
But getting back to my arrival at the Chennai Airport…its airport code being MAA for the former name of Madras, India that was changed back in 1996. There is a new terminal at the Chennai airport, it’s terminal 4 for international departures. However, I came in from Paris on Jet Airways arriving at terminal 3 known as the “Anna” terminal. Who is Anna you might wonder? Anna is the word for someone who is like an elder brother. So you see this word from time to time in and around Chennai. It also happens to be the name of my Mother (RIP) so maybe it was also a little sign that she was watching over, who knows?
I assumed like all busy international terminals there might be a wait going through customs but not a 3 going on 4 hours wait! We got in at 1am local time but at the same time a huge flight from China came in minutes before us. That meant hundreds of passengers in line with only about 3 windows open. Plus, several of the tourists from China had the wrong paperwork and so the clerk would physically escort the passenger somewhere else rather than sending them to another place. This was tedious to have to wait but there was nothing to make it go faster.
India Tourist Visa
Fortunately I got an eVisa online for India which was simple enough and took 2 days to get and cost $100USD. I presented a printout of the eVisa as required. No showing of a downloaded document on your phone is allowed. You have to give a paper printout of your eVisa. Once stamped, I went through a strange security process where everyone was throwing their stuff on a dilapidated conveyor belt to go through a scanner. There wasn’t a formal process really, just dig out your bag, purse, backpack, jacket, whatever from the pile before it toppled to the floor on the other side.
Beware the Air Quality or Lack thereof
I had arranged a driver from the ITC Grand Chola Hotel where I was to be staying to pick us up. He had patiently waited for us the several hours (I had called letting them know of the delay) so that was a big plus especially upon arriving in Chennai. Otherwise, I was in for a big shock as we walked outside so early in the morning, still dark outside but immensely smoky! All this “smoke” was really smog that never really goes away in the city of Chennai. I could live through a delayed customs process but the thickness of the smog was shocking not to mention hard on my sensitive lungs. Our driver was friendly, helpful and managed to squeeze in the luggage into an old SUV while honking as he pushed his way through the throngs of vehicles and people. And throngs there were! Everywhere.
Congestion & Crowds: How Do You Get Around Chennai?
I immediately felt relief once at the hotel. The ITC Grand Chola is considered a 5-star luxury resort. It leaves you feeling immersed in an oasis in an otherwise concrete jungle of congestion and noise. The big plus was hiring a driver through the concierge to get around the city. I found walking or using public transportation was not ideal as it just wasn’t practical. Chennai is a huge city covering approximately 164 square miles! With a population of over 7 million. This is not the kind of city you say to yourself, I’ll just take a quick walk to the seaside. No, too far away.
Hiring a Driver or Use Uber
A driver costs about 2500 Indian Rupee for 6 hours. That converted to about $35 and turned out to be much more reliable than an Uber. And even though road signs are in English and Tamilese (a form of Hindi) driving is opposite of the USA. Plus there was a lot of “anything goes” especially in intersections. The honking though, is something you have to get used to. The dangerous chances drivers take while driving on the road is just how it works in Chennai. I had to get used to it. I even tried Uber a couple of times which were not up to the standard I’m accustomed to when using Uber say, in Europe. Would not really recommend using it in Chennai.
The ITC Grand Chola Hotel
Note: Click on images to expand. Follow @ITCHotels www.instagram.com/itchotels/
I can only rave about this resort! Service par excellent! Style, class, design, history, unbelievable amount of outstanding food restaurants, a swimming pool up top like a private oasis while the hubbub goes on below. Take my word for it this is a must-stay especially if you are a first-timer like I was to Chennai. Oh, and they have rooms for solo female travelers. That’s a plus!
The Spa Experience!
The Hotel has a fabulous spa, The Kaya Kelp. Smooth beige marble adorns the walls and floors making for a feeling of a temple or quiet, elegant space. It’s large, it’s serene, and you get waited on hand and foot literally. I splurged on an Ayurvedic treatment as well as a foot massage. I was referred to talk with a Doctor on staff about my medical conditions to make sure that the Ayurvedic Hot Oil treatment wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it was described as being good for people with Arthritis so I gave it a shot for that reason. For an hour I was given the Royal Treatment by a young female masseuse. It was super relaxing. Afterwards I stepped into the Steam Room, then the Jacuzzi, then showered (all the toiletries and amenities are available right there) then went to the relaxation room for a cup of tea. Ahhh, bliss achieved.
The Rooftop Pool at the ITC Grand Chola
For a refreshing, relaxing time, head to the rooftop pool area that has 3 main pools plus an outdoor Jacuzzi. This is a getaway oasis in the bustling, noisy city of Chennai. The pool area is lush with greenery, clean, and you will be waited on to get food and drinks. It's also ideally situated just outside the gyms on either side where you can continue your workout after a swim. Me, I just lounged after a swim.
Exploring the Many Temples of the Tamil Nadu Region
The City of Chennai is in the Tamil Nadu State that boasts itself as the Land of Temples as there are over 33,000 ancient temples some as old as 5,000 years. You can find them everywhere in varying sizes. The hotel concierge recommended starting with the Kapaleeshwarar Temple which is dedicated to the Lord Shiva/Siva. It is the Mylapore area of Chennai which was severely hit by the Tsunami in 2004. It took about 20 minutes to get there from the hotel and I was disappointed to discover it was closed. I later learned that a lot of temples in Chennai don’t open until the afternoon. I took what photos I could of the outside including an ancient huge wooden statue on wheels that is brought out for special celebrations. Otherwise it sits in the open under a cloth with an intimidating face peering out. The cows in the street, however, don’t seem to mind it.
Expansive Marina Beach on the Bay of Bengal Oceanside
About 10 minutes away from this temple, and still in the Mylapore district, is the famous Marina Beach. It is the longest and largest. We drove along the frontage road where there are dozens of food stands. I was advised not to eat from any of them. I was able to see the Bay of Bengal but it seemed calm, a darkish blue-gray. The open expanse of sand was not filled with people just some here and there. Sometimes kids playing soccer. Further on up the road I drove through the slum area that got hit hard by the Tsunami. Local fisherman/women abound with their catches of the day.
Fort George British Museum
I was also advised to take a visit to the famous Ft. George Museum which is another tourist hot spot. Again, getting there at 4 pm and being told it was closed. Yet the sign said it closes at 5pm. I wanted to see the history pertaining to the British landing here in 1644 and establishing their stronghold. But will have to see it another time.
In the center of Chennai is a Government Museum with history relating to how people first arrived in this part of the Indian Continent thousands of years ago. This complex of museum buildings includes a children’s museum, an art museum and shady tree-lined grounds like a park to walk around and enjoy the scenery. Beware and look up when walking in the back area of this complex as there are tons of hanging bats in the trees. They blend in at first (see photo below). These are not tiny bats but when I saw them fly they seemed as large as a cat. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and moved inside. Ha-ha. But seriously, the bats don’t go swooping around your head. They keep to the trees at least when I was there.
Authentic India Shopping vs. Modern Mall Shopping
I needed to get a Saree (that’s usually how I saw it spelled with 2 ee’s at the end) for the wedding. My husband needed something appropriate to wear as well so we were advised to go to the T. Nagar shopping street. The T stands for Theagaraya which tourists usually can’t pronounce so it’s commonly referred to as T. Nagar street. The driver skillfully found an open parking spot under the highway overpass amidst thousands of other vehicles and pedestrians. My husband and I made a mad dash to cross the street to start shopping for Indian clothing for a wedding. The first store we tried was a chain store with 5 levels. We figured we might luck out and get all what we needed there…but no such luck. The young girls who waited on us looked to be about 13 years old and couldn’t stop giggling at us as we tried to explain what we needed. They didn’t speak a lot of English so they referred us to a gentleman who then said we should go to the 3rd floor. They escorted us to the elevator (insisting we use it). On the 3rd floor we didn’t have any better luck so we decided to take a chance and start store hopping. Luckily next door was a shoe store so we walked in and were greeted by about 3 people eager to serve us. My husband is a big guy so finding shoes and clothing for him was going to be problematic we thought. But at this shoe store we found a comfortable pair of dress shoes for him, a pair of sandals for me, and a clutch. Off we went, hand-in-hand to cross the street to get to a better Saree store. I couldn’t help but drop a few expletives as we were narrowly missed several times by drivers speeding and honking to get out of the way. (There is no pedestrian walk you just have to cross wherever) Our driver saw the struggle so he bravely and boldly made it a point to hold up traffic for us with his hands and made sure we weren’t hit by the cars.
The Pachaiyappas Silks Store
At the Saree store we were stared at again, not surprisingly. It didn’t bother me because we were the only white western people shopping there. It was a busy store with lots of women picking out fabric from a spectacular display of colors. As samples were offered to me, I decided I wanted something with metallic-silver in it to match my shiny sandals so they said go up to the 5th floor. Each floor of the store is based on Saree cost. The first floor is the lowest, and so on. When they said a Saree with silver in it might cost 12,000 rupee and I said fine, is when they ushered me upstairs. (12,000 rupee is about $170USD. I wasn’t thinking and didn’t convert it just went ahead with the flow of things)
The end result of Saree shopping you can see below. The Saree material is actually several yards. It is not cut to fit. It's just one very long piece of rectangular fabric. I had to hire a young woman at the hotel to help "wrap" me which took about 25 minutes. That's because there's a lot of pinning of the folds and pleats to try and hold them in place. I found it not easy to walk in or get in and out of a car without messing up the arrangement a little bit.
Santa Claus in India
The salesman who ended up helping us brought out a nice variety of fabric that he would lay on the table for viewing. Each time I shook my head No, he brought out more. I couldn’t find one that had the Silver in it but settled for one with Gold instead. Since I didn’t know how to wrap it, they called for an old Grandmotherly-type woman to come over and wrap me. She did exquisitely and I liked the appeal of what I saw. The salesman then brought in a young woman to escort me to the dressing room to try on the blouse that is worn underneath. He gave me a blouse that fit exactly by judging my bosom I guess. At least I didn’t have to try on several things. The last thing I needed for the Saree outfit was what they called a dress skirt to go underneath. They didn’t sell those but said they could be found at a lot of places. While we waited for the Saree outfit to be packaged up, we were offered Indian Chai tea in little paper cups. We started to talk with a very friendly Indian salesman who asked where we were from. When he learned we were from Dallas, Texas, USA he smiled big and said his daughter lives in Philadelphia. From there the conversation went on to other topics. I forgot how we got to the point of mentioning that my husband has played Santa Claus for Charity for 10 years but the man was happy to hear it.
My husband then whipped out his Santa Claus ID that he carries around for fun and the man went silent and solemn. We looked at each other wondering if we offended him…he then came over to stand in front of my husband and ask for his blessing. My husband is the friendly-sort and went along with it. My husband then voiced his customary “HO HO HO!” in a deep-chested throttle and at the end folded his hands together in a prayerful way and said “Namaste”. The man nodded downward and seemed very pleased. Then 2 young women walked over and asked for blessings. Then a family with a small child. And more store salespeople. My husband was having a great time with “Ho!Ho!Ho! Namaste!” My mind was blown. I was so taken from what transpired that I didn’t even think to capture it on my iPhone video! Bummer. It was a memorable experience and made my husband’s day!
Modern Shopping Mall
The next shopping area we went to was the Phoenix Marketplace. Just like any shopping mall you would find in America; spacious, multi-storied, with a food court, and cinema. We were heading to a specific store that specialized in Big Man sizes but I spied a Starbucks and had to stop. There were 3 young women sitting there with their laptops open and I struck up a conversation with them asking where they were from. Turns out they were Australian and in Chennai to go to the ITT University(?) They said they felt safe walking around and didn’t get too much unwanted attention. That quelled rumors I had heard before I left, about Indian men ogling Caucasian women.
We managed to find the right outfit for my husband which consisted of dothis (pants) a long tunic and a vest. All gold-flecked on a light turquoise background. He looked great! Continuing shopping, I then found another Tunic outfit for myself, some scarves, and jewelry and we were set. Off to the first wedding event that evening which was the Baraat.
The Mehndi Bridal Party
Meanwhile as we were shopping, the Mehndi Bridal Party was taking place with the Bride and her intimate set of friends who were given dance lessons to be performing a choreographed routine later that evening at yet another party. They also had their hands painted with Henna as is the custom. Here is a photo of my daughter’s hands.
Baraat – The Bride Groom’s Entrance
Exquisitely festive! The Music, The Colors, The Lights, The Dancing, The Happy People welcoming the Groom on Horseback! Yes, he came in astride a white horse, decked out in wedding finery, both the horse and Groom. It was quite an experience to participate in this happy event where we all preceded the groom, dancing to the music that was blasted out in the streets, and he followed along watching us, enjoying the moment. As we neared the Em El Em Mandapam building where the wedding ceremony was to take place inside, the music intensified, the bodies were shaking in unison rhythm to the beat of the drum, the sweating was so visible in all the glittering shiny gold and multi-colored outfits everybody was wearing. This was a heartfelt celebration!
The Bride Meets the Groom
Then the Bride comes out to meet her Groom and both are hoisted onto the shoulders of men. A game is played in which a flower necklace, much like a Hawaiian Lei, is tossed trying to make a ringer on one another’s heads. The Bride missed a few times but was laughing so hard. The Groom made his throws landing them perfectly on her.
This video above is the Bride being escorted into the building by relatives holding up a flowered canopy above her head
Indian Weddings are so LIVELY!
The next day, after only a few hours of sleep, was the actual ceremony of the wedding. This started with the Bride and Groom seated outside on a lovely bright yellow flowered swing as they were feted by their relatives amidst offerings for good luck, good health, and happiness everlasting. I honestly don’t know how this couple managed the energy levels they did, perhaps because they are fit and in their 20’s, but really I think it was true happiness on their part. They really looked overjoyed with all the activities and it was hard to tell if they were ever overwhelmed. Even when I lined up with all the guests to personally greet the Bride and Groom onstage (and to take photos) the energy level was high. You just couldn’t help but feel good things at this wedding.
The Wedding Buffet of a Wide Variety of Indian Food
Afterwards, the Reception where the guests were honored to eat Chowpatty, food that is served on a giant Banana-leaf placemat. The dining room was quite full so we waited until a couple of seats opened up. Everybody sat at long tables and were served by attendants who came by with literal buckets of food. Scoopfuls of food, much of it I had to guess what it was until the young woman on my left advised me what was what. She also said we could ask for a fork of spoon if necessary. But we declined saying we would eat like everybody else which was to use your fingers to scrape up the food into a sort of pile or ball and then quickly move it up into your mouth. No drips or spillage once you got the hang of it. Afterwards, in the adjacent room where everybody washed up in a long row of sinks, the ice cream was served for dessert. All sorts of toppings could be put on the ice cream. Everybody was enjoying this lip-smacking dessert.
Incredible Indelible India
That wedding was incredible! That ties in with India Tourism’s slogan I guess, but it’s true! There is more to see in India than one industrialized city like Chennai. If you are going to fly all the way to India, make it a point to get out of the major cities and see some more sites. I regret not being able to do that. The capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo is a 2-hour plane ride away and an island unto itself. Goa is about a 2-hour train ride west of Chennai on the other coast of India. To the north is the capital of New Delhi about 6 hours away by plane. It is also where a lot of international flights connect to catch the local regional jets onwards to other points in India. If you go: Check out the Hill Stations of Northern India as another option to exploring India.
Give in to the Vibe, Feel the Experience
There is a line in the 2006 movie Outsourced that stuck out to me when an older American businessman is counseling the young American tech manager on how to adjust to life in India. He says; “I remember feeling like you. I was resisting India. Once I gave in, I did much better”. And that to me sums up how you need to throw out your expectations and keep an open mind to discovering India.
The last piece of advice I can give you is if you ever get invited to an Indian wedding, don’t turn it down.