Sunday, June 15, 2008

Last train to Bombay

I love showing people around the cities I’ve lived in… so when a friend of mine told me he was stopping in Bombay for 3 days, en route to Finland (via London (passing through Hong Kong (with a short break in…))), I jumped at the opportunity to blog. So here goes, Neil...

August in Bombay is going to be wet. Very wet. If you’re spending time just walking around and getting the feel of the city, my advice is: don’t wear your good shoes / clothes, take extra care of your expensive cameras/cell phones, know that you’re going to get drenched and, enjoy yourself!

South Bombay is the commercial and cultural heart of the city. You could easily spend at least a couple of days here, depending on what you like to do. I’d start off at Victoria Terminus, one of the cities biggest and busies train terminuses. The fascinating bit is that VT - besides being a crazy jostling, throbbing, cursing hub of human activity – is also a World Heritage Building. It’s not surprising to see why. It’s my favourite building in the city for the simple reason that every time I stop to look, I see something I haven’t seen before (the last time a friend pointed out peacock motifs I’d never noticed). They also have guided walks or tours through the building but they’re few and far between. I haven’t been on one, but you could ask around if your agent’s connected. Across the road from VT is the BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) building, which is also pretty neat.

Warning: As with the city’s name itself, most of these buildings/places have been renamed. For instance, VT is now called CST (named after Chhatrapati Shivaji, a local historical figure) and the BMC is still the BMC but now stands for the Brihan Mumbai (Greater Mumbai) Municipal Corporation.

One thing you must do is take a ride on the local trains!!! It’s usually good if you have a local with you… depends on how adventurous you’re feeling! Buy a ticket at VT and travel for a couple of stations against the crowd (which would be away from VT in the morning) and then come back. If you time it right, you might also see Bombay’s famous dabbawallahs! {Also, you must ride an autorickshaw!!! You’re not going to find these in the city but if you happen to be in the suburbs and see one, flag him down.}

Moving along… A 5 minute cab ride away is Flora Fountain. From here, I’d recommend walking along D.N. Road to the Kala Ghoda area. D.N. Road’s always entertaining cause it’s choc-a-bloc with street-side vendors selling everything from clothes and souvenir-type trinkets, to pirated copies of books that have barely been released to dildos (yes, your eyes deceive you not – dildos). NOT that I believe you need any of these items. I just write it like it is, man. Most of D.N. Road’s sheltered, so that should make matters a little easier. Along the way, keep an eye out for some pretty neat architecture in the Standard Chartered Bank, Elphinstone College, etc.

(A short, but necessary, detour away, is the Bombay University building near Oval Maidan. If there’s the smallest of breaks in the weather, you’ll find a minimum of 10 simultaneous games of cricket on at the Oval)

Kala Ghoda is Bombay’s art district. Stop by at the Jehangir Art Gallery; the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Max Meuller Gallery are in the vicinity. If you’re so inclined you could get your name carved on a grain of rice by the side of the road. Or do something more normal and pick up some art on a leaf or something. This is a decent spot for a good lunch break: eat at the ever-reliable Khyber or, Trishna (for seafood, but if you’re up for a great fish meal I’d recommend Mahesh Lunch Home or Bharat / Excellensea… they’re not too far away).

After, walk down to the Prince of Wales Museum (now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum). Spend as much time as you like before walking towards Regal at Colaba Causeway. Regal’s one of the city’s oldest cinemas; it’s not a modern-day multiplex but a theatre-style, old-fashioned arena. I recommend getting balcony tickets to watch a Bollywood flick (you’ve gotta, surely!). It won’t be subtitled, but I reckon you’ll get the hang of things. You may not want to watch the whole 3-hour extravaganza… at worst, you’ll get yourselves 30 minutes of air-conditioned comfort, out of the rain, with popcorn. The Causeway strip’s a fun place to shop around for “Indian” stuff. Know that you have to bargain with great flair and drama!

Still in Causeway, Café Mondegar is a Bombay institution. You MUST have a beer on me, over there. And it must be a Kingfisher. The jukebox, constant chatter and the zany cartoons… *sigh*, I miss Mondy’s. L

5 minutes away from Causeway is the Gateway of India. It’s a great place for people watching. Saunter over to the Taj Mahal Hotel and walk into the old section of the hotel. It’s gorgeous and offers a glimpse of why the top-notch Indian 5-star hotels rate amongst the best hotels in the world.

From here, take a short ride to marine drive and sit on the promenade to feel the full force of the monsoons… always a fantastic experience. Marine drive… all the way up to Nariman Point… is what predominantly makes up the Bombay skyline. Don’t miss out on the roasted corn on the cob while you’re at it. The dome bar at hotel Marine Plaza is one of the best spots in the city to catch the sunset… though I think they shut this outdoor restaurant down for the rainy season. Chowpatty beach is a must-visit as well… on a good day it should be a riot of colour and activity. There’s a great fine dining restaurant here called the Salt Water Grill. It overlooks the sea and is a bit of a pricy thing; I haven’t been here myself though.

Drive up to Walkeshwar for a photo-op: you can see Bombay’s famous Queen’s necklace (the marine drive belt, “studded” with lights) before returning back to the city. You can drive back by the Parsi tower of silence.

Other places to eat at while in the city: Koyla is a cool restaurant for Indian cuisine, it’s atop a terrace and has views of the harbour. Café Leopold offers European type fare and is generally full of tourists. Theobrama is across the road and has fabulous (non-Indian) desserts. Bade Miya is another Bombay institution: hidden away behind the Taj Mahal Hotel, this little streetside eatery has some pretty decent kebabs, rolls etc.

You could also do a short boat ride to the Elephanta caves… but remember that the caves close by 5, so leave plenty of time to get there, look around for an hour and then get back. I might recommend it if you had more time in the city and if it was in better weather. In your circumstances, it’s likely to be more trouble than it’s worth.

There are other things to see around the city, depending on what you like and how much time you have. Though I haven’t been there ever, Gandhi’s Bombay abode - Mani Bhavan sounds interesting according to Lonely Planet, dhobhi ghaat – the municipal washing place is quite a sight to behold, there’s the National Center for the Performing Arts where you might catch a good play or a concert, visit the Bombay Store for good-quality souvenirs, take a ride on a Victoria (carriage-drawn horse) along Marine Drive, drop in at the Afghan church, check out the revolving restaurant atop the hotel Ambassador and so on.

Most of the above should more than fill up one day. For the remainder of your stay in Bombay, you have two options:

a) if you want to experience more of the city – venture to some of the suburbs. Bandra and Juhu are two that have quite a buzz about them. If you’ve missed Chowpatti, you could go to the beach at Juhu, which has more of the same kind of activity around it. Linking Road in Bandra is a great place to shop. See if someone can drive you to the Fab India store (it’s one of my favourites; great cotton kurtas). If you’re going to try Bhel Puri, you’d have to try it near Elco Arcade in Bandra. Walk over to Carter Road and take a stroll along the promenade. During the day, you could conceivably go to Film City and see if you can get one of those guided tours on a Bollywood set, though it seems a bit pricey for my liking.

b) if you’re looking for a break, drive up to one of the hillstations about 2 or 3 hours outside the city. Matheran is my personal favourite but Mahableshwar / Panchgani / Lonavala are all fine. This is a great time to go up there, cause it’s up the mountains which will be splendid in the monsoons. Be sure to get yourselves a comfortable hotel and see if there’s someone that can show you around to the different “points”. Preferably pick a week day to do this as the crowds can get maddening on weekends. Beware of monkeys.

What to eat:

Must: Kulfi (Indian icecream), mangoes (though they will probably be out of season by August), a biryani (it’s not very Bombay, but I haven’t been able to find a good biryani outside of India)

Feeling bold: Bhel Puri (a street side snack), Vada Pav (a Bombay special; again a streetside snack), Bombay Duck (a boneless fish, crisply fried), a “Frankie” – a spicy wrap.


kate said...

I'll be in Bombay in two days! :O

Great post btw. When are you planning to visit bombay next?

Bridget said...

Hey Dylan

It's Bridget (Neil's partner). Thanks so much for this - I am even more excited about our visit now.

We'll be sure to have a Kingfisher, or two, for you!


Neil said...

WOW - I'm now wondering whether I can get these specially commissioned blog posts on other topics of my choice.

I think you should consider a career in travel writing.

Especially after re-reading those Func Specs.

Seriously, thanks for the tips mate.


And now I'm hungry...

Dylan said...

Kate - Very Jealous. Say hi to the gang and make sure you don't tip over outside Janata again!

Bridget - You're going to have an awesome time. Make sure you take lots of pictures. You'll also have to thank me for not mentioning Bombay's notorious "dance bars".

Neil - OUCH!!! Sorry for hanging on to your LP for the last few months. I'll bring it to this Friday's drinks. When are you leaving again? We should do lunch, tennis... I can pass on tips that are... errmm... unfit for publication.
(Incidentally, the walk I decribed from VT to the Gateway has been noted in the book... except backwards)

Ms. CP - What's the Indian food scene in the Caymans?

Dylan said...

This just in from Neil and Bridget:

"Dylan - we've just landed and have found ourselves in Mondy's. I just asked the man to 'kindly do the needful' and sort us out with Kingfishers - we raise our glasses to you, sir. N"


The Phillips in Mondegar's. Who'd have thought it.