India Overnight Trains – Our experience so far

We love to ride the train. It’s our favourite form of transportation, and in Sri Lanka we used it whenever possible. One thing we hadn’t yet experienced was taking the train overnight. Vero and I have taken a night train before in Thailand, and we loved it. As you can imagine, doing it with kids is a whole other story.

One of our early concerns was where we would put our bags and how to keep an eye on the bags and kids while still getting some sleep. We inadvertently discovered a fool-proof method to watch everything. Sleeping, not so much.

For those who have been following our travels, you may by now have gotten the impression that we don’t plan ahead very far. Our preferred method is to get to a place and then decide how long we want to stay, and where to go next. The problem with that in India is that the trains are very often booked full.

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We only book three bunks because we’re budget travelers, and the Little Fella has to have someone with him to keep him from falling out of bed and plummeting to the floor. To get 3 beds together in 2nd or 3rd class A/C you need to book a week ahead of time. We are not good at that.

For people like us, there is what’s called the tatkal ticket (tatkal means last minute) which actually costs more than booking ahead of time. It seems like they block off a certain number of tatkal tickets in order to maximize the number of surcharges. It’s the opposite of the airlines, where a last minute deal can be an amazing value.

Our first overnighter was from Kochi (actually Ernakulam) to Bangalore. The ride is around 13 hours, depending on which train you take and what time you leave. The different overnight trains don’t have the same number of stops, so the total time can vary by a few hours. Because we booked last minute, we didn’t have any choice of class or bunks.

Train Classes

A brief word on train classes. Sleeper classes are divided into 1st, 2 tier AC, 3 tier AC, and Sleeper. We’ve never seen 1st class (and probably never will).

2 tier AC is called that because there are 2 tiers of bunks, and it is air conditioned. If we booked far enough ahead we’d be able to have all three of our beds in a curtained off compartment, with one stranger.

3 tier AC is similar, but with 3 tiers of bunks and no curtains. Best case scenario for us in 3 tier AC is to have two lower bunks and one middle. I don’t mind sleeping high off the floor, but if you have to get up several times in the night (more on that later) it can be inconvenient.

Sleeper is just like 3 AC but with no AC. If it were just a question of temperature, we would probably opt for sleeper class, but without AC there are no sealed windows, just bars and metal shutters. Those don’t do much for cutting the noise of the train rolling on the tracks.

Overnight from Kochi to Bangalore

We boarded the train at 6 PM to discover that our bunks were Side Upper, Side Lower and Upper. That means that two bunks are separated from the third by the aisle; less than ideal. The side bunks are also a little narrower than the others. That’s not good when you’re sharing with a little monkey who likes to flail in his sleep.

At first the kids were over-excited. Then they were over-tired. By the time they were ready for bed, everyone was exhausted and out of patience. The parents didn’t sleep well, and the kids didn’t sleep enough.

Overnight Mysore to Hampi (Hosapete)

On our second overnight train we unintentionally found the perfect way to supervise our kids and luggage on the train.

Read more on page 2!

Kathakali – Fascinating, but bring earplugs.

One of the cultural attractions in Fort Kochi is the Kathakali Cultural Dance demonstration. It takes place nightly at the Kerala Kathakali Centre located not far from the Santa Cruz Basilica. The show starts at 6 PM, but if you arrive at 5 you can watch the actors putting on their makeup. This is one of the most interesting parts of the whole event.

Building cheek fins.
This process took half an hour, with surprising results.

The two actors did most of their own makeup except for the one playing the hero. He had some help to glue on his paper cheek fins ( terminology?). The mustachioed fellow above patiently built up a frame of rice glue and cut concentric pieces of paper to attach to the hero’s cheeks. Check out the result.

More colour!
Once the cheek fins were finished, more and more colour on the face.

While the two actors were getting ready, the narrator / cymbal player was preparing the room. He lit the ghee lamps and put flowers in the various deity figurines. He also made designs on the floor using little metal pans and white sand from the fire extinguisher buckets. That was pretty neat.

Fire extinguisher designs.
He had elephants, flowers, little feet, all kinds of stuff.

After about an hour of makeup, there’s a small demonstration of Kathakali acting techniques. It’s at this point that the drumming starts.

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There are two drummers at the side of the stage, and I am certain that their instruments are meant for a much larger space. The theatre in the Kerala Kathakali Centre is quite small and so the sound is deafening.

Put in your eaplugs!
There’s no talking in Kathakali, it’s all facial expressions.

Following the demo, the actors retire to put on their costumes, and the narrator joins the drummers in a drumming improv. If we were to go again, we would sit this part out completely. It’s painfully loud and at least fifteen minutes long. There’s no way around it, it was too much, too loud, too long for us.

The actual show is just four scenes, but the makeup combined with the costumes is spectacular. The two actors perform only a small demonstration of a typical play, the whole of which can last up to 9 hours!!

Scary makeup
The story: Hero meets woman; woman is secretly a demon.

It’s a fascinating look into the cultural art form, and really interesting how much dialog they can convey without saying anything. The kids liked it (except for when the hero killed the demon, the screaming scared the Little Fella). There was another demonstration (music, I think) following the Kathakali, but it was past our bedtime.

Kerala Houseboating from Alleppey

One of the classic attractions in Kerala is to go houseboating on a converted rice barge in the Kerala Backwater. It is so popular that there are multiple cities from which you can leave, and more than 1800 boats to choose from. We arrived in the area from the south, so Alleppey was the logical place to go.

Contrary to what I had thought, you cannot embark in one city and disembark at another. I was thinking we could restfully cruise up the lake and save ourselves a bus ride at the same time. No. The boats all leave around 11:30, cruise nine tenths of the way around lake and stop for the night.

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In high season, apparently most of the 1800+ boats are on the water and it can feel a little crowded. We went to the main docks expecting a swarm of touts to descend upon us. In monsoon season, you can walk onto the houseboat docks and pick a boat, any boat. Some of them you will have to go onto the forward deck and shake the captain awake to get a tour of the boat.

So many boats!
This is a tiny fraction of the boats available in low season.

After a little comparison shopping, we settled on reasonably priced ( INR 8000, approx $160 CAD) two bedroom boat with a crew of three. The price includes lunch, tea and snacks, dinner, breakfast, and cruising from 11:30 AM until 9 AM the following day. There is a cook on board, and any special requests ( like vegetarian meals, extra fruit, beer in the evening) are easily accommodated.

Pro tip for parents

Check the railings (are there any, how high are they) on your prospective boat before you book. Check upstairs too, because if little Jonny is about to fall off the sundeck the whole cruise, nobody’s getting any peace.

The variety of styles and sizes of boats is staggering. I did not see two boats that looked exactly the same. There are many smaller boats with one or two bedrooms, but some have as many as eight! Apparently there are a few boats with onboard pools!

Neighbour boat
This boat looked a lot like ours, but with an extra room.

The Cruise

The houseboating experience starts with some open water, and the first thing you notice is how slow you’re going. This is not a race, and you wouldn’t want it to be. Slow and easy, go get your book.

The cruise alternates between open water and wide channels and is absolutely mellow and relaxing, even with two little kids on board.

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The beauty of houseboating on the Kerala backwater is that there’s always something to look at. Even if you don’t have a book handy, which you should, there’s plenty to see. Other houseboats with people waving and dancing, or waving and relaxing, small canoes and delivery boats, or just the scenery.

Hay, move it!
Local farmers / entrepreneurs moving some hay.

When we stopped for lunch, after a while we heard a bell ringing getting closer and closer. Imagine our surprise and amusement when we saw this old fellow pass by in his ice cream boat!

Houseboating comes with ice cream
We were staring at him and he just yelled “Ice Cream!!’

Speaking of lunch, every meal is a feast! I think because we booked and paid for a two bedroom boat, they prepared meals for four adults. Hurray! Let’s eat ourselves into a coma!

Every meal's a feast!
Way too much food, but way to good to not eat!

For more, see page 2 (button below)