[FoRK] [TRAVELMAN] getting outside of Bangalore

Rohit Khare < rohit at commerce.net > on > Fri Jun 9 13:09:42 PDT 2006


Fueled by a high-tech boom, Bangalore has become hip, fun -- and  
frustrating. But just hours away, calm retreats and wildlife  
sanctuaries beckon.

By Vani Rangachar, Times Staff Writer
June 4, 2006

ON our visits home to Bangalore when I was a child, my mom toted  
giant jars of Skippy so my siblings and I could have peanut butter  
sandwiches. My grandmother bought her vegetables fresh from a cart  
that a skinny, muscular man pushed through the street, and milk was  
sold, still warm, by a man who milked the water buffalo in front of  
her house. When we went touring outside the city, it was only to  
visit ancient temple after ancient temple. These were some of the  
sureties of my India.

But during a trip here in March, after an absence of six years, I  
realized that many of the certainties of childhood were gone —  
vanished in a tech and outsourcing boom that has proved an economic  
boon for the city. The people, my family, were all dear and familiar  
to me, but the city? Almost unrecognizable.

Those water buffaloes had long since vanished from Bangalore's  
streets. High-rise apartment buildings tower where there were farm  
fields. In a city that once had no grocery stores, there is now a  
Food World, with milk and vegetables in refrigerated cases, freezers  
full of prepared foods and shelves stocked with Skippy. And my  
cousins do more than visit temples when they vacation. They relax at  
beach resorts, go white-water rafting or rent houseboats on a  
mountain lake.

At the trendy Blue Bar — this in a place where "proper" people didn't  
drink and foreign brands were hard to find — I sipped an excellent  
Grey Goose martini, my first in India. I had a cappuccino at Café  
Coffee Day, a Starbucks-like place where patrons are glued to their  
cellphones. And I got the best haircut of my life at Bounce, a high- 
end salon that opened last year.

With my shorn locks went my notions of the city I thought I knew,  
where modernization always seemed several decades behind the U.S.

Until now.

Bangalore has become hip, fun and effervescently energetic, riding  
high on the shoulders of prosperity. But this city of about 6 million  
is not a tourist magnet. It's the capital of Karnataka state and  
primarily a business center, and it's hard to spend more than a  
couple of leisurely days here.

There's not much sightseeing besides a couple of pretty parks and  
some architecturally interesting government buildings. Unlike Delhi  
or Rajasthan to the north, it has no romantic rose-tinged palaces and  
forts, no camel rides in the desert, no villagers wearing mirror-work  
skirts and tops.

Its traffic jams are legendary. Average speeds in Bangalore are 10 to  
11 mph, according to a March report from the Institute of  
Transportation and Consultancy. Things have gotten so bad that the  
chief executives of Wipro and Infosys, top tech companies here, early  
this year threatened to take their businesses elsewhere if the  
government didn't improve the mess.

If you're in Bangalore, it's likely you're here on business, or  
you're like me, a visiting nonresident Indian (or NRI, as the acronym- 
loving Indians call us). When the nonstop city wears you out, it's  
time to get away.

And that's what more and more middle-class Bangaloreans are doing.

There are more vacation spots and activities to try outside the city  
than ever before. Witness my cousins: While I was visiting, one was  
leaving for a weeklong stay on a houseboat in Srinagar, Kashmir.  
Another was headed on a white-water-rafting trip to Dandeli Wildlife  
Sanctuary in the southern part of Karnataka state.

Shravan Gupta, director of Travel Tours, an agency with 10 offices in  
Bangalore and other southern India cities, credits the improved ease  
of travel. "With the low-cost carriers and a lot of highway  
improvements, a lot more places are accessible," Gupta said.

For visiting Americans, that means more places to see and stay.

I checked out one resort north of the city. Angsana Bangalore, a  
Marriott-style resort, opened in 2001. It's affiliated with the Asian  
luxury chain Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, which has been expanding  
across Asia and the Pacific since 1995. The 8-acre resort has a spa,  
a conference center and a meandering, man-made stream, with a pool  
and waterfall. Room rates start at $178.

Angsana and other such resorts depend on corporate retreats and  
conferences to fill their rooms during the week. On the Wednesday I  
visited, I wasn't able to get a room because all 39 had been filled  
by Philips electronics company employees having an off-site  
conference, a desk clerk told me.

So I decided to go farther afield.


I traveled 22 miles from Bangalore northwest to Shreyas, a yoga  
retreat started in 2004. It was a stressful 1 1/2 -hour drive (even  
though I had borrowed my cousin's driver), during which we had  
several near-collisions on a garbage-strewn road jammed with people,  
trucks, rickshaws and cars.

Maybe it was the journey that made my arrival at Shreyas feel so  
welcoming. Inside the gates, coconut trees rustled in the breeze. It  
was quiet enough to hear bird song.

Two men clad in white kurtas and loose pants greeted me at the  
entrance. One placed a garland of flowers around my neck; the other  
handed me a cool, wet washcloth to clean off the road grime.

Shreyas, owned by a widely traveled financier, Pawan Malik, is an  
artful melding of Indian and international, spiritual and high-tech.  
Vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown on the 25-acre property, and  
the cuisine is vegetarian, wholesome (no alcoholic drinks) and  

Soon after my arrival, the manager asked whether I had any health  
issues or dietary needs. I am diabetic, so my meals, which were  
delicious, included a mushroom soup without cream, a spinach curry  
with baby corn, chapatis made without oil and a salad of sprouted  
mung beans.

Its dozen rooms and cabin-tents have broadband Internet connections  
but no TV. (For the desperate, there's a room where you can watch  
DVDs.) The area by the lap pool has wireless Internet access; I was  
offered use of a laptop if I wanted to check my e-mail.

Shreyas had an almost religious attention to detail in service and  
decoration. After dinner, an employee led the way to my cabin-tent by  
flashlight. A granite basin filled with floating chrysanthemums and  
marigolds occupied a corner of the courtyard of my room. Rose petals  
were strewn across my candle-lighted dinner table.

The landscaping on the former coconut farm included artfully placed  
statues of Hindu gods. Temple-like granite columns framed passageways  
at the main building. A library held volumes by Deepak Chopra, Kahlil  
Gibran and Paramahansa Yogananda.

Shreyas "is run like an ashram, without delving into religion," said  
Malik, who used to live in Japan. "I was influenced by Zen retreats  
we used to go to. We don't have anything like that here."

 From his travels abroad, he also developed a more egalitarian  
outlook toward his staff. Members of the staff joined me in the twice- 
daily yoga classes, and I lunched with manager Rucha Sukhramani. I  
could have helped them tend the farm, if I'd had the energy.


A similar give-back-to-the-community spirit spurred the development  
of Kapila, a 16-acre wilderness retreat on the edge of Nagarhole  
National Park, about a five-hour drive southwest of Bangalore.

Its founder, T.G. "Tiger" Ramesh, who made his fortune in the Indian  
tech industry, said he is "bullish on tourism," explaining that it is  
one way to solve India's poverty problems and preserve rural areas by  
raising incomes and creating more employment.

"Tourism is the only way we can help them," he said.

He's also bullish on wildlife preservation and hopes his initiative  
will deter poaching. He plans to expand his Cicada chain to 15 such  
resorts in key wilderness areas throughout India.

Kapila, which opened in October, lacks Shreyas' high-style patina,  
and that's part of its allure, although it could do a few things better.

It's in a sylvan setting on the banks of the Kabini River, and its  
eight rooms are decorated with Indian-made furniture and antiques.  
Victorian rosewood cabinets and tables occupy open-air hallways.  
There was no pool, and swimming in the river was prohibited. The one  
amenity in the bathroom of my spacious room overlooking the river was  
a fragrant travel-size bar of Mysore Sandalwood soap. No shampoo or  
conditioner, however.

Meals, which were good, bountiful buffets with Indian and Western  
selections, were included in the price of my stay, but soft drinks,  
bottled water and beer were extra. The key activities — safaris,  
boating and kayaking — carried add-on fees, and signing for the  
extras became irritating.

But I couldn't complain about the mission of the place or the  
enthusiasm of its staff. Nearly all its workers are hired from  
neighboring villages, where Kapila funds education, medical and  
development projects. Staffers were friendly and eager to please,  
whether bringing tea or coffee in the early morning before a safari  
or ridding my room of a marching column of ants.

Adjacent to the resort is the 257-square-mile Nagarhole park, which  
is home to more than 250 kinds of birds and two of India's big cat  
species, tigers and leopards. But they don't rule the forest here.  
Elephants do.

The park is home to more than 800 pachyderms during the hot, rainless  
months of February through May. On the three safaris I went on, I saw  
plenty — moms gamboling in the water with a newborn, tuskers mock- 
charging us, chomping bamboo, throwing dust on their backs, ambling  
through the forest.

I saw other creatures too, thanks to Harsha, the staff naturalist who  
like some Indians goes by only one name. Without him I would have  
missed the shadowy gaur, a wild ox, about to cross the dirt track,  
the Malabar squirrel jumping on branches and the chattering langur  
monkeys high in the treetops. He turned me into a full-fledged  
birder, adding more than two dozen species to my list.

Harsha had touching empathy for all creatures, great and small.  
"Don't cry; we'll go," he told one baby macaque crying for its mom,  
which had fled at our approach. "I could watch them all day," he said.

What eluded us were the big cats. We came close, stopping several  
times to listen to the warning calls of the deer. But it was the  
tourists in a jeep from the neighboring Kabini River Lodge, which is  
run by the Karnataka government, that spotted the leopard sprinting  
across a clearing.

Oddly, I wasn't disappointed. By leaving the big city, I had  
reconnected with my homeland and found the pieces I had thought were  

On my way back to Bangalore, I saw a bullock cart piled high with  
sugar cane and a man herding water buffaloes along the road. And back  
in the city outside my aunts' home, I heard the call of the tarkari- 
wallah, shouting, "Onions, onions, onions."



India oases


 From LAX, Lufthansa, British and Air India have connecting flights  
to Bangalore, India (with change of plane). Restricted round-trip  
fares begin at $1,172 until June 15, increasing to $1,536 until July 4.


To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international  
dialing code), 91 (country code for India), 80 (Bangalore's area  
code) and the local number.


Jayamahal Palace Hotel, 1 Jayamahal Road, Bangalore; 4153-5715,  
jayamahalpalacehotel.com. One of the more moderately priced hotels in  
Bangalore on sprawling grounds in the middle of the city. The hotel,  
a former palace, was opened last year after a redo by Gujarat  
maharajah. Rooms are a combination of Indian and Western décor.  
Doubles from $112.

Shreyas, Santoshima Farm, Gollahalli, Byrashetty Village,  
Nelamangala, Bangalore; 2773-7102 or 2773-7103, http:// 
www.shreyasretreat.com . India chic; stylish yoga retreat on  
outskirts of urban Bangalore. A great place to recover from the  
punishing flight, but beware the train (and its piercing whistle)  
that runs behind the property. Doubles from $200.

Kapila Wilderness Retreat, Wilderness Resorts Pvt. Ltd., 1133, First  
Floor, 100 Feet Road, HAL II Stage, Bangalore; 4115-2200, http:// 
www.kapilaretreat.com . The five-hour drive southwest of the city to  
the retreat takes you through rural India. It's rough around the  
edges — there's no pool (but one is being built), and you can't swim  
in the Kabini River — but it's clean and brings you close to nature.  
The naturalist, Harsha, is knowledgeable and a terrific companion on  
a safari. Doubles from $120 a night, including meals. Activities such  
as safaris and kayaking are extra, about $11 each.

Kabini River Lodge, Jungle Lodges & Resorts Ltd., Second Floor,  
Shrungar Shopping Centre, M.G. Road, Bangalore; 2559-7021, http:// 
www.junglelodges.com . State-run chain of lodges in key wilderness  
areas. The sprawling Kabini property occupies a lovely high spot on  
the river, and my mother loved her stay there in March 2005. Doubles  
from $220.

Angsana Oasis Spa & Resort Bangalore, Northwest Country Main,  
Doddaballapur Road, Rajankunte, Bangalore; 2846-8892, http:// 
www.angsana.com/bangalore . Doubles from $178.



All the places above have restaurants or serve meals to guests. Some  
other places in Bangalore I liked:

Coastal Express, 6/4, Sivananda Complex, Sivananda Circle, Kumara  
Park East; 2235-5094. Specializes in seafood made in the style of the  
coastal city of Mangalore. Fish courses $3-$4.

Mynt, Taj West End, Race Course Road, Bangalore; 5660-5660, http:// 
www.tajhotels.com . This expensive hotel has a 24-hour coffee shop,  
but it doesn't carry typical coffee-shop fare. Western and Indian  
dishes $6.50-$17.50. Buffets $14-$18.



Karnataka Tourism Development Corp., No. 49, Second Floor, Khanija  
Bhavan, West Entrance, Race Course Road, Bangalore; 235-2901 or  
235-2902, http://www.kstdc.nic.in .

Government of India Tourist Office, (213) 380-8855, http:// 
www.incredibleindia.org .

— Vani Rangachar

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