Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Not enough Weekend destinations from Chennai?

Many of my friends in Chennai go to Bengaluru, as they've exhausted all weekend options in and around Chennai. Greg Moran, co-founder of Zoomcars said they've deferred opening a branch in Chennai as they feel Chennai doesn't have too many weekend destinations, that could ensure sustained demand for self-drive rental cars.  Relatives who visit Chennai often cut short their trip, as they feel there’s nothing else to see and if I ask them to come again, they often say No, saying “We've seen everything No?”.

I am publishing below my own list of weekend destinations ex-Chennai, though there’re plenty of such lists already available on the net. So far I could list 25 places within city, 10 places within some 100kms distance and 20 destinations which are little further but can be covered in a 2-3 days trip.

Are below places good enough to keep people engaged weekend after weekend? So is it true that Chennai doesn’t have enough weekend destinations? Let us say compared to Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and other cities? Prima-facie it feels so. But if you feel there’s more one can explore, please do comment.

Type 1: 25 Places within city limits of Chennai (Few hours/30-40 kms )
#
Destination
Description
Recommended time of visit
1
Kapaleeshwar Temple
Religious place
Early morning
2
Marina Beach
Beach
Early morning/ Evening
3
Besant Nagar Beach
Beach
Early morning/ Evening
4
VGP
Beach/entertainment
Normal business hours
5
MGM
Amusement park
Normal business hours
6
T Nagar/Pondy Bazaar
Shopping area
Evening
7
Anna Memorial
Monument
Any
8
Guindy National Park, Snake Park
Zoo
Normal business hours- 8AM onwards
9
Nehru Planetarium
Museum and Planetarium
Any
10
Anna Library
Library
Normal business hours
11
Gandhi Mandapam
Monument
Any
12
Vandaloor Zoo
Zoo
Normal business hours (9AM onwards
13
Theosophical society
Scenic avenue
Not open on Sundays, check their site for access information
14
Music Academy/
Egmore theater
Cultural activities
Depending on program
15
Light house at Marina
View of the beach
10 Am to 1 PM, 3PM to 5PM
16
Alliance Francis
Cultural activities
Depending on program
17
Valluvar Kottam
Monument
Any
18
Astalakshmi temple, Besant Nagar
Religious place
Any
19
Santhome Church
Religious place
Any
20
Cholamandal Artist Village, ECR
Art & Culture
Normal business hours
21
ISKCON Temple, Sholinganallur
Religious place
Any
22
Jagannath Temple, Kanathur ECR
Religious place
Any
23
Queensland amusement park, Bangalore road
Amusement park
Normal business hours
24
Semmozhi Poonga (Theme park on Cathedral road
Park
Any
25
Rajiv Gandhi Memorial
Monument
Any
Type 2: Nearby destinations from Chennai (Short visits-half day or 1 day, 100kms)
#
Destination
Distance from Chennai
What to expect/do?
Season
1
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary
100
Bird watching
Mid November to Mid Feb
2
Pulicat Lake
100
Bird watching, boat ride
Mid November to Mid Feb
3
Mahabalipuram
60
Temples, beaches
Any
4
Alamparai
100
Fort, backwaters
Any
5
Dakshin Chitra
20
Cultural experience, handicrafts, South Indian tradition etc
Any day, afternoon is better
6
ATV Ride near Mahabs
50
Polaris Offroad ATV ride centre

Detailed review here
Any
7
Visit Royal Enfield Factory
50
Guided tour of the legendary factory.

Detailed review here
Check on RE website for fees and appointment
8
Muttukadu boat ride, Crocodile bank
50
Entertainment

Sunset at Muttukadu
Normal business hours
9
Kovalam
40
Beach
Any
10
Kancheepuram
80
Temples
Any

Type 3: Weekend destinations (Approx 200-800kms round trip, one or more night stay, often clubbed with other nearby places)


#
Destinations
Total Round Trip Distance
What to expect
Season

1
Chandragiri-Talakona-Horsley Hills
650-700kms
Waterfalls, hill station, fort
Any
Chennai is very close to Andhra Pradesh and above destinations, all located in AP state, can be explored in 24 hours if you’re pressed for time or in 48 hours in a relaxed mode.

24 hour plan:
Start from Chennai very early in the morning, take the route towards Tirupati, breakfast on the way and reach Chandragiri fort (170kms) by 9AM (its opening time). Spend 1 hour here exploring the fort & museum, leave for Talakona waterfalls, another 50kms from Chandragiri fort. Reach by 11.30 AM, spend time at the falls till 1PM, lunch at the community cottage and head towards Madanapalle. Reach Horsley hills (130kms from Talakona) by evening, spend a few hours, leave for Chennai by 6.30PM. Chennai is 300kms from Horsley hills and you may reach home/hotel by midnight.

48 hours plan
While above plan can get very hectic, you can do the same in a relaxed mode, by spending a night either in Tirupati or Talakona or Horsley hills. Adequate accommodation options are available here. This will give you more time at each of the places and can avoid continuous/night driving, you may even include visit to Tirupati temple if interested.

Related posts:  Talakona * Horsley Hills * Chandragiri 
2
Pondy-Pichavaram-Tranquebar
600kms
Scenery, Mangrove forests, Danish fort
Any
Leave from Chennai early in the morning, spend an hour or two in Mahabalipuram if you’ve not been there, then head to Pondicherry. (you are recommended to take a quick diversion to check out Alamparai fort)

Spend few hours in Pondy exploring rock beach, Ashrama, drive further to Pichavaram near Chidambaram. Target to reach by noon or 2PM. At Pichavaram take a boat ride into Mangrove forests to explore the scenery and birds.

Once done, you may head towards Tranquebar. Depending on your budget and comfort zone, you may opt to stay either at Chidambaram town or Neemrana Bungalow on the beach at Tranquebar or Karaikal town. If daylight permits explore Tranquebar, else relax for the day

Day 2: Explore Tranquebar and Danish fort (Try visiting it Day 1 itself if possible. Fort opens at 10AM, little too late if you wish to start early and explore other places)

Once done with Tranquebar, you may either head to Velankani (a popular church town) or return towards Chennai. With small deviations you will be able to explore Gingee fort and or Vedanthangal, depending on how much time is left and the interest levels of the group.

Add Point Calimere if you have time and if it is a season of birds (Nov-Feb)

More details on Pichavaram * Neemrana Bungalow on the beach, Tranquebar * Danish Fort 
3
Salem, Yercaud, Kolli Hills
800kms
Hill stations, view points
Any
You may either drive down all the way to Salem or take a bus/train to Salem and then hire a cab there. If you start on Friday night, you may reach Salem on Saturday early morning. Drive uphill to Yercaud. Yercaud is poor man’s ooty and offers lots of view-points, few temples, caves and boat rides. Lots of accommodation options are available in Yercaud, including multi star resorts. You may opt to stay here in Yercaud or drive down to Salem town and spend the night there

On Day 2, drive towards Kolli hills. Kolli hills offers a bunch of view-points, a temple and more than that, you’ll enjoy driving through the hair pin bends.

Related posts: Yarcaud * Kolli Malai
4
Vellore, Yelagiri, Hogenakkal
500kms
Waterfalls, hill station
Any
Leave from Chennai early in the morning, head to Vellore. Spend some time visiting the Golden temple in Vellore and then head to Yelagiri. Yelagiri is a small hill station and offers nice viewpoints and a temple. With some local help you can also do some trekking around the hills

Basic accommodation available on top of Yelagiri- if you like the place and wish to spend a night, you can opt to stay here, else get down and drive towards Krishnagiri. You can stay at any hotel in Krishnagiri or Dharmagiri

Day 2: Head to Hogenakkal falls. Water level and activities may vary depending on what time of the year you visit the falls. Try coracle ride in the waters, swim where it is safe to.

Start return journey by noon, to reach Chennai by evening time.

Related: Yelagiri bike trip  * Hogenakkal
5
Tada, Nagala, Nagari
100kms towards AP
Trekking
Any
Trekking destinations- go with expert trekkers or join treks organized by Chennai Trekkers Club. Can be one day activity or multi day trek with overnight camping in the hills
6
Gingee Fort
250kms
Fort
Any
Can be explored off GST road while returning from Pondy or a dedicated day could be spent to explore this ancient fort. More details here
7
Bangalore and nearby
800kms
Multiple
Any
Drive towards Bangalore and explore Antaragange in Kolar, Nandi hills, Bannerghatta and other places in and around Bangalore
8
Velankani, Tanjavur
800kms
Religious
Any
Velankani shrine is very popular amount the Chirstians and short distance from there is Tanjavur with its popular Bruhadeeshwar temple.

Type 4: Super long Weekend destinations (Approx 600kms + oneway, 1000kms+ round trip, 3-4 days recommended).

Some of these involve very long drive or could be covered by flight for part of the distance to save time. Some of these can be visited directly from other towns like Bengaluru/Hyd etc as well with less travel.
#
Destinations
Total Round Trip Distance
What to expect
Season
1
Kadapa, Gandikota, Belum caves (AP/ Telangana)
1200kms
Caves, valley, monuments

Leave from Chennai on Friday night, reach Kadapa by Saturday morning. You can keep this town as your base for this trip. Refresh, have breakfast and then drive to Gandikota. You can have lunch here and then leave for Belum caves

Back in Kadapa and rest for the day

Day 2: You may visit Talakona & Horsley hills and return to Chennai
Alternatively you may leave on Saturday morning, reach Kadapa by noon and visit Belum caves and Gandikota in leisure, return to Chennai by Sunday evening, without deviating to Talakona

Related: Belum Caves * Gandikota 
2
Ooty
1200kms
Hill station
Any
Ooty needs no introduction. This queen of hills is 600kms from Chennai. You can leave on Friday night, spend 2 days in Ooty and come back by Monday morning, or take few days off and extend your stay.
3
Kodaikanal
1200kms
Hill station
Any
Another popular hill station similar to Ooty
4
Valparai, Athirapalli falls
1200kms
Hill station
Any
Scenic hill station, less crowded that Ooty and Kodaikanal- scenic drive, less stay options and close to Athirapally waterfalls, Kerala.
5
Munnar
1200kms
Hill station
Any
Scenic hill station, just across Kerala border. Read my travelogue on Munnar
6
Vishakapattanam (Vizag)
1700kms
Beach, valley
Any
800 kms from Chennai, Vizag can be reached by flight or by road/train. Once there, explore RK beach, Araku valley, caves, Kailasagiri, Submarine museum and other places of interest

Add Simhachalam if you have some more time
7
Rameshwaram
1200kms
Temple, Scenery
Any
Visit Rameshwaram for religious purpose or to explore the popular Pamban bridge and Dhanushkodi villages.
8
Madhumalai Wildlife Reserve
1200kms
Wildlife
Any
Again the closer route is via Bangalore & Mysore, Bandipur & Nagarahole can be added to plan if you have few extra days.
9
Palani, Srirangam
1400 kms
Temples
Any
Palani can be added to plan while visiting Munnar/Valparai etc as it is closer
10
Kanyakumari
1400kms
Monument, beaches

At the other extreme of TN, Kanyakumari is popular for its scenary, monument in the sea among other things
11
Badhrachalam Telangala
1400kms
Temple and Scenic drive
Any
Add it to plan along with Hyd/Vizag, since traveling just for Badhrachalam might not make sense. It offers nice drive and temples
12
Hyderabad
1400kms
Multiple
Any
Visit for Golconda fort, Charminar, Ramoji film city and many other attractions

Distances are indicative. Depending on where you're staying, actual distance may vary. Also read: Places to explore near Chennai- Early morning and late evening *

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wat Saket (Phu Khao Thong or Golden Mount), Bangkok

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Visited Wat Saket one more time during my recent Thailand visit- on the last day when we were on our own

I've already written about Wat Saket, popularly known as Golden Mount and also known as Phu Khao Thong is a small Buddhist temple on a small hill, very close to where Grand Palace and other popular temples are located in Bangkok. It is a 13th century temple with annual celebrations held in November every year.

The entry fee seemed to be same as it was 2 years ago, 20 baht.




This time I would prefer my videos do the talking. Do watch the video below to get a good walkthrough of Golden Mount temple in Bangkok, Thailand. Video covers the entrance, interiors, rooftop, scenary and almost everything there is to see at Wat Saket.



Arvalem falls, Sanquelim, Goa

This little falls in Goa is located within the premises of a temple- very eye catching and inviting.

Aravalem falls is located near the campus of Rudreshwar temple in Sanquelim area, about 30kms from Panjim city. If you're heading to Belgaum or to Chorlea ghat, a small deviation at Sanquelim will take you to this falls.


Downstream is very shallow and is fairly safe and ideal for getting into. It wasn't deep enough for  swim in August when we went.

There're steps to go close to top of the falls and one can also view it from the river in front of the temple


 View of the temple

A view of the river, downstream

Aravalem falls is sometimes also referred to as Harvalem falls. There is also a cave nearby, which we couldn't explore.

The Rudreshwar temple is very popular with hindus, people come here from all over to perform 12th/13th day rituals for the dead.

Thanks to temple and vigilant villagers, this falls is free from regular tourists who drink near the falls and spoil the nature by throwing garbage.

Map to Arvalem Falls is embedded below

Similar: Mahadev Temple, Tambdi Surla

Univercell Sync- Smartphone Experience centres

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When I got invite for visiting Univercell Sync Store in Chennai to experience how Univercell can help enhance one's smartphone buying experience, I was also eager to find out how UniverCell is gearing itself up to take on the challenge from online retailers.

The process of buying a phone has changed dramatically over the decade. A decade ago, camera phone, colour screen, polyphonic ring tone made a phone desirable. Factors like how many contacts/SMS the phone can store, torch, type of games it came with etc were the factors that helped purchase decisions. Even the once super desirable 25k+ phones- like N73 had to be purchased just by reading the specs and without getting to touch and feel a live unit.

Things are different today. You first need to decide if you want Windows, Android or iOS. Only after that the brand and other specs are considered. Because everything is an App and is downloadable, its the hardware configuration and after-sales service that influences purchases heavily, along with price. Online retailers are able to sell phones 10-20% cheaper than brick and mortar stores, leveraging cost savings in logistics and economy of scale. Customers are more informed than ever and positive online feedbacks convince many to make purchase decisions even without seeing or feeling a phone.

But that does't mean physical stores are extinct. They are fighting back with innovations and offering something online retailers can't provide- personalized hands on experience with the phones and its accessories, to be able to make more informed purchased decisions and a host of after sale services not yet available online.

With that background, let us explore what Univercell Sync has in store for us.

Univercell Sync is an experience store where a visitor can gets hands on live experience on all latest models, take pictures with the phone, get it printed, try suitable accessories for the phone, get advise on apps to use and avail a host of after sales service.
Latest Phones counter
As customers walk in, first desk on the left has all the latest models. This is because everyone is usually interested in checking out the latest ones first. Next to that is a photobooth- a small platform with a green background and a few dummy frames to pose with. Since almost everyone wants to use the camera feature in their phone, this section lets them experience the camera capabilities of the phone they have in mind. A set of tips advises customers what to look for in a camera.

After having tried clicking pictures, should you wish to print them, there's a small LG portable printer, which costs Rs 10000 approx. This device talks to all phones using NFC/WiFi and can give a smaller than postcard size. I am not sure to what extent this printer is really useful, but the idea is that should you wish to print, you can buy suitable printers.

Next is the music booth, where a host of music accessories, starting from an earphone worth few hundred to super speciality speakers/headphones worth Rs 12000 are displayed. Prospective buyers can try out how music plays in each of these accessories, try out docking stations etc. You should note that most of the stores that sell music accessories (and in the online world) often need you to buy the gadget before it can be opened and experienced. Soumya Menon, VP Brand Strategy explained that customers often come with a budget in mind (say I need a phone in 20k range) but hardly plan for accessories.  Not having the right accessories can spoil the fun. Hence Univercell Sync staff can understand a prospect's usage/needs etc and then recommend right kind of accessories for the phone. With this information, customer may eventually opt to spend little less on the phone- say 15k and spend rest of his/her budget on the right kind of accessories- earphones, power banks, memory cards, printers etc.

Most of the gadgets in music section were from Sony and Phillips- apparently both these companies had some trouble and were seen closing down some of their portfolios. I am told they are fully committed to phones and music.

Next section of the store focuses on work-phones- for people who intend to get most of their work done over phone. Having full MS Office suite in the phone, extra power, printers and scanners etc are the focus in this section.

At the centre of the store is a large display area where phones that do not exactly fit into a category (Camera/Music/Work) are displayed. Adequate spacing has been ensured between the devices to ensure comfort to the guests checking them out.

Apart from display, demo and purchase assistance, UniverCell Sync also offers few additional services to its customers, something online stores don't.

Sync Squad: Sync These days, lots need to be done after buying the phone- such as installing right apps, loading it with your favorite music, pairing it with your car etc, in order to make the most of your smartphone experience. Sync Squad is a team of experts who will visit the homes of phone buyers, a week or two after they've bought the phone. This team can help the customer further customize the phone, clear any doubts or help with any issues customer may have in using/personalizing his/her phone. (I know Ford offers similar services to those who buy Ecosports). This is a great service where buyer doesn't have to scramble for help or search online for a problem he/she is facing.

Total Care: Total care is an after sales service package. For phones less than Rs 15000, customers can pay Rs 500 (Rs 800 for 15k+ phones) and avail following services:
- Zero travel: Free doorstep pickup and drop in case phone needs servicing (this is offered by a 3rd party- PickMe, who will coordinate movement of the phone between customer and service centre.)
- Insurance coverage for the phone

I asked how easy is the process of claiming insurance for phones- I was told that it is very simple and in about 80% of the cases, claim is honored and customers get money back. (Insurance covers 60% of purchase cost during first year, 40% during next year and so on). For phones priced upto 15k, FIR is not required to claim insurance, simple declaration/paperwork is adequate.

I asked if UniverCell will take care of activities like phone de-activation, remote wipe out etc. I was told they won't do it, but will guide the customer how to get it done.

I asked how's Lenovo's service- as this was a concern though their phones seemed to be rugged. I was told that Lenovo service is not a problem.

I asked how should one go about chosing the right OS- The answer was something like this "If you want to lots of office work on your phone, go for Windows, as it comes with full suite of office applications and email and other functions. For generic music, photography and other usage, Android is very popular. Go for Apple if you're very particular about it"

There's a feedback kiosk, which lets visitors vote in +ve or -ve, about their experience at the store (but has no provision to capture subsequent details  why someone is happy/not happy).

There're a few drawbacks yet at UniverCell Sync store. The price is not displayed next to the phone. I am told this is because "Prices change very dynamically and we didn't have the heart to put a hand written price tag in this smart store". Staff has to be approached for price information, which is little inconvenient if you're randomly browsing phones. Probably Univercell can have a display screen which shows latest prices for each model (Like how airports display departure time and gates)

Not all phones had a sim or connected to internet- this sort of hampers the experience (there're security concerns in leaving dozens of phones connected to net unattended). But if requested, staff should be able to help by doing the needful (add a sim card and connect a particular phone to net)

Phone purchase is not everyday activity. When you buy one, you always want to buy the right one. UniverCell Sync is fully geared up to help you with your phone purchase exercise, bringing together the latest phones, right accessories and expert help all under one roof. In other words, you can either spend lots of time researching a phone online, or simply walk into Univercell sync store and experience the smart phones live to make a much more confident purchase decision.

I am told UniverCell has about 14 Sync experience stores in India so far- covering Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune.. More coming up soon.

Got to meet few other bloggers during the event- Subramaniam, Raj, Hansini.

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