roadtrip

The Rickshaw Diaries: A Road Trip Across India

The Tipsy Gypsies Cruisin'.   Illustrated and animated by  Felix Roos .

The Tipsy Gypsies Cruisin'. Illustrated and animated by Felix Roos.

It was nearly Christmas Eve and we were four months into our journey through India. We had arrived in southern India in the state of Kerala, famous for its backwaters and we had reached the point in our trip where we felt like we'd seen enough temples, tombs and forts for a lifetime. We had run out of the "Top 10" same (bullshit) things to do and we needed some serious balance of sightseeing and real adventure. So after much discussion, we decided to ask Santa for a rickshaw. This is the story of how we managed to explore nearly half the length of India in a rickshaw and not kill ourselves while doing it. 

After a few days of frantically trying to buy a rickshaw and an additional 5 days of finalizing the paperwork, fixing major mechanical issues and pimping our rickshaw, we were finally ready to leave Kochi on new years and start our wild road trip. We had no plan of how far to drive or where, so we just picked a direction and started driving north. These are our favorite places that we visited in our rickshaw.

Alleppey, Kerala

This is the famous backwaters country of South India. You can rent a houseboat for few hours and cruise around or sleep on the boat, which is what we did and highly recommend it. If you show up last minute during the middle of the week or off season, you can negotiate a pretty decent price for an overnight stay.

These traditional wooden houseboats with thatched roofs, were traditionally used to transport various materials and people. It was also the fastest way of transportation between the 5 lakes connected by canals. Nowadays the house boats are a big hit and a big tourist attraction. Staying overnight on a houseboat can get quite pricey, especially during the high season. Because we booked same day, we paid about 7,000 rupees for the whole boat, which is extremely cheap since it was around the holidays. Typically these boats cost anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 per night.

We left the main harbor around 3pm to cruise and watch the sunset on the backwater. The boat was very comfortable and the crew was extremely nice and cooked us amazing Kerala style food. At night the boat parked on a quiet bank of the backwaters, far from the other boats we watched the stars and drank beers until the stars got blurry. 

In the morning we enjoyed a few more hours watching the sunrise, drinking hot chai and eating spicy Kerala style breakfast with eggs, appam (coconut pancakes), sambar (vegetable and lentil stew) and fruit.

 

Munnar, Kerala

Munnar is absolutely breathtaking and its hills are covered with vibrant tea plants. Many of the tea plantations in Munnar were started by the British, who loved this region for it's cool climate and natural beauty.

A lot of the Indian tea is still produced here. Every time we drove through the hills we could hear the clipping sound of the fresh tea being cut. It also smells incredible! 

Munnar is situated in the Western Ghants mountain range with an altitude of 1,600 meters (5,200 ft), so getting there in the rickshaw was not easy, but it was absolutely worth it. We spent 2 days driving around the tea plantations and visiting the hill stations. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any plantations that offered tea tastings, which was odd, but if you want to taste the regional tea you can visit the Munnar Tea Museum.

Karnataka

Not many people know that the state of Karnataka has some of the most beautiful beaches in India. We were shocked how pristine and remote the beaches were here. This is also probably the only place in India where the beaches have white sand. This coastline is not developed and you can only see small local huts near the beach and there are not many places to stay near the beach We found one hotel with a beach view near Mattu village, but the security guard turned us away. We returned to the hotel the next day and insisted on speaking to the manager. Eventually the manager told us the same thing, that they were booked and they didn't have any future available dates. It was a very strange response. Perhaps we weren't welcome because of our unusual form of transportation and we didn't meet their typical guest profile. We will never know. Honestely it was for the best because we would never stay in a place that is so snobbish.

When we asked the locals on the road about some simple guest houses they mentioned one but we couldn't find it. The nearby town Udupai (about 15km away), has plenty of accommodations though. We slept there and we hung out on the beach for few hours the next morning before we left

One day we would love to come back to Karnataka with a tent and sleep on the beach near Mattu.

 

Our favorite area was the stretch from Kapu till the end of the peninsula. The beaches on the peninsula are absolutely amazing and unlike anywhere else you will see in India!

Goa

Goa was probably the easiest place for us to drive our rickshaw. This state is one of the busiest tourist destinations in India and at the same time is very laid back. Most of people who live or work here are in the tourist industry, therefore, are accustomed to western habits like the love of strong coffee, eating pizza, women in bikinis or women driving a rickshaw for that matter. Just kidding about the women driving rickshaw, that still totally freaked everybody out.

 We drove through many towns in Goa and here some of the places that we liked the most.

Palolem: A Hippy's Paradise

Palolem seems to attract mostly young hippy types and for some reason lots of Israelis. Tourists come here for yoga and spiritual trainings, to master fire dancing and hula-hoop skills. Palolem is one of the most westernized small towns in India that we have visited. You can actually eat an authentic pizza here at Magic Italy restaurant, drink perfectly brewed coffee, that has not been diluted and sweetened with 10 spoons of sugar, from Mika Mocha. The beach in Palolem is very popular during the day with people trying to sell you boat rides and at night the atmosphere is quite charming with candle lit tables on the sand and fresh seafood being grilled. With no shortage of places to eat on the beach, we always tried to time our dinner around sunset so we could take in the amazing view. 

 

Agonda: the Holly Cow beach

Agonda is the smaller and more quiet sister of Palolem. There are a few decent restaurants on the main road and the guest houses seem to be the cheapest here. We rented a bungalow, on the beach for 800 rupees/12 USD. The beaches although less crowded and relaxing are full of cow shit, so be careful where you walk, especially at night. If you want something even more remote, visit the nearby Cola beach, which is gorgeous.

Morjim: a Russian Paradise

We actually like Morjim a lot mostly because the wide and well kept beaches and the sunsets are incredible!

Although this area used to be known as a heavy party town, it seems like things have changed these days. We had a relaxing stay at Xaviers with their restaurant and great food situated right on the beach (the service is a bit slow, but the food was worth the wait). At Xavier's, they also screen movies every night, but in Russian. Morjim is a popular tourist destination for many Russians and almost everything has been translated into Russian including menus in the restaurants and movies, which have a Russian voice over. We heard some rumors from the locals that a while ago this town was owned by the Russian mafia. It has since changed and nowadays you will come across many Indian and western tourists who don't know how to order from a Russian menu.

Malvan, Maharastra

Malvan has a really special place in our hearts. We first came to this town before we started the rickshaw road trip and we fell in love with it's people and atmosphere. We've made some very good friends, ate some amazing food and so we had to come back for more.

Unlike touristy Goa, the beaches in Malvan are almost empty. You wont find any obnoxious, loud bars on the beach here, but you are welcome to chill with a cold brew. 

Malvan is known for it's unique blend of spices and the seafood is great here. This town has the best Thali restaurant that we have tasted in all of India.  The name of the restaurant is Love kick and it is run by the Kirtane family. We ate there everyday. The Veg Thali came with a fresh green leafy salad mixed with raw coconut, chana with a unique mix of coconut, aloo (potatoes) mixed with cabbage and a sol curry, which is to die for! Sol curry, also known as Solkadi, is a popular Konkani curry made from coconut and kokum fruit. It is a staple of Malvan, eaten with rice or drank after a meal. It's mildly sour flavor and light texture not only tasted delicious but it helps your mouth cool off from the spices and also helps with digestion. So many benefits from one fruit!

If you are polite when you arrive, the owner of the Love Kick restaurant will help you with a secret BYOB section. You might have to sit in the VIP room, aka the back of the house, so nobody sees you drinking. Also please don't embarrass us by asking for a fork. Make sure you eat your Thali like it was meant to be eaten, with your hands!

Besides the food and beaches in Malvan, you can visit the Sindhudurg Fort by a small boat, buy some fresh fish from the market in the early morning, and make sure you try the local drink made from coconuts called Madi.

But most importantly, make sure you make some friends. The Malvan people are some of the best we have ever met! 

If you come to Malvan we INSIST you stay at Vicky's Guest House. We can't recommend this place enough. The whole Fernandez family is so lovely and Vicky who runs the guesthouse, is the best unofficial guide in town. He will give you many tips and will go out of his way to make sure you are a satisfied customer. 

Malvan was our last stop on the rickshaw road trip. We drove about 1,500 km and we covered 4 states in two weeks. We originally planned to drive all the way to Rajasthan but at the end we had to change our travel plans and we left our rickshaw with a friend in Malvan, who helped us sell it to a local who will use it for his business. The small profit was then distributed amongst our friends who helped us along the way.

Final Thoughts

Buying and driving the rickshaw wasn't just fun, it was also educational and eye opening. Traveling at a top speed of 40km/hr on mostly backroads gives you a perspective of India you can't get in any other way. It doesn't matter if you go by train, bus or car, you're moving too fast. And there is no better ice breaker than a crazy looking rickshaw to make new friends in every town you go.

But like many things in India, driving a rickshaw can be quite dangerous. They are slow, unreliable and have questionable balance. So if you ever decide to try this, please make sure you get lots of practice beforehand and do not overestimate your or the rickshaws abilities. Vehicles drive fast and with little regard to the rules of the road so driving defensively will be your best chance of survival.

The legality of what we did is also somewhat questionable but we had no issues, even when we were pulled over by police. 

And finally, the most important take away from this trip was how humbled we were by everyone that we met. It didn't matter what village or city we were in, when we broke down, people went out of their way to help us get back on the road. When we were lost, people gave us directions with a smile. And when we were just stopping for fun, there was always someone with the kindness and sincerity to make us feel truly welcome. 

We wish we could take the rickshaw with us to every country that we visit because the experience was so much greater. But since we can't, we will continue to seek out other adventures that allow for these types of connections. Because to us, that is what travel is really all about. As great as the beaches or mountains are, in the end it's always about the people. So India, we thank you for that. Thank you for welcoming us into your home and and treating us like family and thank you for teaching us what unconditional generosity really means.

We look forward to seeing you again soon!

If you have any questions about the trip or want advice on doing something similar, feel free to ask in the comments below.

Motorbiking the Thakhek Loop

There are road trips and then there are road trips… this the latter. Although merely a 3 – 4 day loop, the majestic views and the multitude of caves and villages to be explored make it a must for anyone traveling through Laos.

We at The Tipsy Gypsies have a great appreciation for temples, museums and guided tours but after so many months on the road, what really tickles our pickle, are trips that involve adventure and allows for the amazingness that is known as, The Unexpected.

Marta taking her first ride!

Marta taking her first ride!

Although we have embarked on far more adventurous journeys such as driving a rickshaw across India, or exploring remote villages in the Himalayas, we were thoroughly excited when we arrived in the town of Thakhek and picked out our rides for this journey. Marta had never ridden a motorcycle before yet she already knew her favorite of the two wheel family, is the dirt bike. Therefor it was natural that we rent a Kawasaki 150cc for her to get her feet wet. Since this was a learning experience, we decided our second bike would be an easy, cruising, fully auto, Honda scooter. That way we could take turns on the more rugged, not designed for road trips Kawasaki, and after a few hours of ass sore, find relief on the cushony Honda cruiser.

We arrived in Thakhek late the first evening so little was to be done. But our next day we rented the dirt bike and stayed in town so Marta could get her bearings on riding the (for her petite size), beast of a two wheeler. Thakhek as a town doesn’t have much to offer but they do have a cute tiny night market at the city center square where you can sit at children size tables and nibble street goods, while watching some projected Lao soap operas.

The next day we set out early. Within minutes of leaving Thakhek you see yourself surrounded by those beautiful steep cliffs iconic to South East Asia. There are a slew of caves you can visit within the first half of your day but after our first, we decided to skip the rest.

There are a slew of caves you can visit within the first half of your day but after our first, we decided to skip the rest. They are pretty, but honestly it felt like (understandably) they were built just to attract tourists to these villages that otherwise, have nothing else. The locals we met were friendly and inviting but the cave we visited left a lot to be desired. Preferring the view from the road, we decided to just continue towards our first days end destination at the town of Thalang.

The drive was spectacular and ascending to a higher altitude, we made some steep winding climbs. Eventually you see the terrain drastically change as you pass the Nakai-Tai Damn. The landscape suddenly takes on a surreal, beautiful and yet post apocalyptic feel as you’re suddenly driving between unnatural islands formed by once-upon-a-time hilltops and surrounded by unnatural lakes filled with barren and dying trees.

The Tipsy Gypsies Thakhek Loop

The town of Thalang itself is tiny and situated on one of the hilltop-turned-islands. There are two companies operating bungalow guesthouses and although Mad Monkeys recommended the first called Phosy Thalang, we decided on the second, which is right before you cross the bridge and is called Saibadee Guesthouse. We still walked to Phosy to compare and we were very happy with our decision. We got a great but modest bungalow for 50,000 kip ($7 dollars) and the family who runs the place is awesome. Really friendly, welcoming and they do an all you can eat BBQ every night which was worth every penny of our higher than normal dinner expense of 50,000 kip/person. Everyone sits at a long communal table and it’s like having a big family cookout.

The next day we took our time and we were on the road by 9:30am. The drive out of the lake area is spectacular and eventually the terrain will change as you reach the junction town of Lak Xao. Not much to see here but a good stop for lunch if you had a light breakfast.

Beyond Lak Xao the terrain again becomes more mountainous and jungly, sprinkled with little villages and picturesque rice paddies.

About an hour out of Lak Xao, just past the town of Phontan, you will see a sign that says Pool Spring, or something to like that. This is a must stop. After hours on the dusty hot road it’s a gorgeous natural swimming hole with a vibrant blue and cool refreshing water. When we first arrived things were quiet and peaceful, but within an hour of getting there, scooter after scooter of local teens from the local school began arriving and the atmosphere turned into a spring break party. We weren’t sure if this was a normal, every day occurrence or school was out for holiday or summer… but regardless, we were happy we got there before the music started blasting. No stress to us though because it was time to hit the road again as we still had another 150km and a hike ahead of us before the day was done.

Eventually you make another climb and then finally a descent into a massive valley. The viewpoint you’ll pass as you descend is totally worth a stop. After you finish your decent you’ll reach the town of Nahim, which mainly exists for the large hydro plant in town. But just past the turn you’ll later make to head to Konglor, is a trailhead and a hike to a waterfall (also clearly marked). There is an entrance fee of 10,000 kip and it’s a beautiful 1.5-3km hike depending on where you park, but we were so bummed when we reached the waterfall.

We've seen better...

We've seen better...

We did this hike in April, which is not the rainy season so the waterfall was merely a trickle. Nonetheless we were still grateful to find a swimming pool large enough for us to cool off before heading back.

After the hike we hit the road fast and furious to make our final stop for the day before the sun went down. This was honestly my favorite part of the day’s trip. The road into Konglor is spectacular as you pass through farming village after farming village. And as the walls of the valley grew narrower and narrower, it only became more spectacular. If you can time this  part of the ride during dusk you won’t regret it. I was smiling from ear to ear at the scenery, back dropped by the pastel colors of the famous Laos setting sun.

We arrived at the end of the road and the town of Konglor, right as it got dark. And we scoped out every guesthouse in town. We can say with certainty, stay in the very first one! The rooms again are only 50,000 kip, which is cheaper than most, and spotlessly clean. Their menu left a little to be desired but you can easily walk to any of the other guesthouses, or the one restaurant in town for dinner.

The next morning we were out by 8:30 and heading to the ferry dock for the main attraction on this trip: the Konglor Cave. Although we had grown less than enthusiastic about the previous caves, this one is worth every penny. And if you share the boat with the max passenger capacity of three, that’s pretty much what this awesome experience will cost you (2,000 kip into the park and 130,000 kip for the boat, which you can divide by the three passengers).

The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Caution, you will get a little wet and have to walk in some water so bring flip-flops if you have them. If not, you can rent them.

The boat ride is amazing and takes you through the massive 7km long cave, out the other side and then back again. Aside from one small Disneyland, gimmicky section where they’ve lit the cave with colorful lights, your only light source is your headlamp. As you emerge from the other side you’re greeted by lush green jungles and even if only for a moment, you and your two companions feel like real explorers. After a quick break and a cold Laobeer at the other ferry dock, you head back and experience it for a second time. After saying goodbye to our awesome guide and momentary fellow explorer, it was time to hit the road again.

From this point you have two options. Head back the way you came, which takes most people an additional two days, or do what we did because of time, continue the last section of the loop, which connects to the main highway and speeds you back to Thakhek.

Final view before descending towards the main highway.

Final view before descending towards the main highway.

Our recommendation, if you have the time, head back the way you came. Although we hit a couple amazing and quite memorable viewpoints before reaching the main highway, once you get to the busy road, the ride sucks. It’s dangerous and nothing to see. Buses, trucks and cars will fly past you and you’ll be bound to have a few heart attacks along the way.

Needless to say, we were all smiles when we got back to Thakhek. After two weeks of “sight seeing”, it gave us at least a little adrenaline boost and reinvigorated our travel spirits. And on top of that, Marta is now a motorcycle rider! I must say I’m extremely proud of my wife for yet again, wanting to do something ambitious, and kicking ass at it. At a height of 5’1”, a 150cc bike is the MAXIMUM size she can fit on. Her feet barely touched the ground, yet she took it on fearlessly and with determination. I can’t wait to see her ride a bike more her size as I know she will love it even more.

Thanks Mad Monkeys!

Thanks Mad Monkeys!

In Thakhek, we were thoroughly pleased with our experience renting from Mad Monkey who had great customer service and good prices. We were also happy with our stay at the Thakhek Travel Lodge, offering dorm rooms, affordable simple doubles as well as some more upscale rooms if you want something a bit nicer after the long ride.

Two important notes. First, if you are trying to decide between this loop and the Pakse, choose this one! Although we have not done both our selves, we talked to multiple long term riders who have done both and they say the Thakhek Loop wins hands down. Second, if you read some of the other popular blog posts on this loop, most are completely outdated in pictures and details. For example, the loop is now completely paved! We were expecting major sections of road to be dirt and muddy but aside from small side roads to reach caves and swimming holes, the main route is as smooth as butter.

We can’t wait for our next two-wheeler road trip, maybe South America??? Maybe sooner??? Who knows, so stay tuned!

If you have any questions or think we missed something awesome from your trip, please share in the comments below!

RICKSHAW ROADTRIP

The Tipsy Gypsies decided to buy, paint, repair and drive an old auto rickshaw over 1200km from Kochi, Kerala to Malvan Maharashtra. Unfortunately we didn't film as much as liked, (we were too busy driving and fixing things!) but here are a few shots from our adventure along the way.