The Indian backpacker circuit is pretty well defined now. Saunter its analogous boroughs and ubiquitous signage winks back at you. From Little India to Pumpernickel Bakery they’re all there to extend a reassuring welcome. Only local backdrops change as Old Manali dittos Rishikeish dittos Leh dittos Jaisalmer dittos the trendsetter of them all, Goa. The circuit adds new spots like Gokarna quite regularly. One recent discovery though that took me by surprise was Puri in Orissa being an old-timer of the trail.
Restless sea and siesta
From amongst the country’s beach-towns Puri is my top pick. I’ve been here quite often but never felt the need to surf the town; perhaps the reason I remained oblivious to its backpacker district. A holiday in this coastal town for me begins and ends with its beautifully-rough sea. I’m particularly drawn to its playful restlessness, the way its waves teasingly rise and forcefully crash, before coyly submitting themselves to the shore. It’s like a sprightly companion and I can sit for hours watching its antics.
Sea, swim and siesta, all perfect weekend ingredients, keep me quite occupied here. Throw in a daily massage and life is a beach! It’s an effort to exert and at best I stroll up to the bustling-with-tourists Golden Beach market to catch the evening buzz.
Little else matches the enjoyment in having a munch, watching the waves coming in; and a lot of choice is on offer here. My favourite amongst hawkers is the singhara-wala, whose ware includes piping-hot singharaas (potato-filled fried savoury) and an assortment of chhana mishti (milk-based sweets). The fare is typically stocked in a series of aluminium pots swinging on two ends of a bamboo staff, merrily balanced on his shoulders. It’s been this way forever; the man and his trade being part of uniquely-timeless Puri.
When a friend from overseas recently dropped by holding that venerated bible for lonely travellers of this planet, did I stumble upon Puri’s backpacker information. I was curious. Seizing the first opportunity and armed with details I arrived in town to experience its not-so-new ‘new face’.
Then and Now
Puri is now directly connected with a number of trains, which usually run packed. As soon as I stepped out from my coach, I was swallowed by a sea of humanity on the platform. Whoever says Indians don’t travel needed to be there that day! Since my previous visit, the number of three-wheeler autos has shot-up and I was surrounded by a frenzied bunch of drivers offering to ferry me at “best price”. When I mentioned the hotel I was booked into, one of them said, “Oh! Angrezi taraf jana hai...You want to go to the foreigner-end,” and disappeared. I finally settled for one bargain and was happy to be out of the chaotic station. En route the driver re-confirmed if I had a hotel booking or was a walk-in customer. Apparently they got “no commission” at the backpacker-end and found it profitable taking passengers to the popular Swargadwar Road or Puri Hotel-end.
Nothing is too far in Puri and I reached my destination in a matter of a few minutes. It was a bumpy ride through mucky roads and I can’t resist my rant: when will we as a people learn to dress our towns? We’ve become conscious in (television) dressing ourselves but keeping it clean is also fashionable! It was a let-down seeing Puri dirtier but a few hours later I was glad at a redeeming factor: its beach was clean, very clean, the administration prudently having involved local fishermen to keep it such.
One of the first signage to greet me as I turned into Chakratirtha Road or CT Road, was, well, Little India! Not overtly backpacker when compared to other towns, this side of Puri is diametrically opposite to the popular end and blissfully quieter. On my friend’s recommendation I headed to a hotel whose old-world air had pleased her. It turned out to be a stately bungalow and in essence was a non-hotel hotel, but disappointing. Yes, it did let the spirit of communion develop among travellers through its non-intrusive ways but lacked modern amenities and a certain style. As in oft-seen cases, I felt, it was running on the sheer might of an entry into the sort of venerated bible my friend had been toting. Or maybe I’ve been spoilt by what heritage hotels in India now offer the budget spender. No, Z Hotel, yes that's the name, was not value for my money.
CT Road has developed over the past few years, but it essentially remains an area where you can find your space and share notes with an interesting mix of easygoing travellers on sidewalks, cafes and of-course the beach. An Italian couple I met had been touring the region on scooter as it reminded them of home. A New York resident was here to study 7th century temple architecture while an Indian based in the UK was doing a project with stone sculptors near Konark. A 60-year-young Swiss was researching dolphin breeding patterns. Not everyone was here with an agenda, though. A trio of girls from Australia on sabbatical had been in Puri for a week with no plans yet of going anywhere further. I couldn’t resist asking them what kept them glued to the Puri beach when Australia had some of the best the world offered. They liked the “slow pace of life here, the untamed sea and warmth of the locals. A little hygiene would make it perfect”, they chorused. I agreed. During an interaction I was let in on a tip (from a travel bible) of getting the best views of Lord Jagannath Temple from Raghunandan Library opposite it, but to beware getting conned into paying a small sum for the views.
Expectedly the shops lining CT Road are tuned in catering to the requirements of an international clientele and fairly well equipped. The Enfield is on hire here and yoga/mediation classes are on offer. There are a number of internet cafes, a few lovely bookshops where you can sit quietly and browse, curio and antique shops that are not overly overpriced, apparel stores and quite a few open-air restaurants offering an assortment on its menu. As most businesses shut down during off-season (February to June) I had to settle for traveller reviews on places like Xanadu restaurant serving “fantastic sea-food”. One cafe which gets my top marks is the inviting Honey Bee Bakery and Pizzeria. If there’s any reason for me to return to Puri apart from the sea it’s this! Run by Debabrata ‘Debu’ Tripathy and his Japanese wife, it has a tranquil ambience and offers scrumptious breakfast, delicious cakes, good bread and a largely Italian spread. The ice-cream with chocolate sauce served in an off-beat blue glass cup-saucer was a divine treat. It’s its artistic presentation and passion that goes into freshly preparing every order taken which elevates the experience.
At this end, the beach shacks of Pink House Restaurant are very popular. They adjoin the fisherman cove and you can choose fish from the daily catch and get it cooked to order. There are some stand-alone shacks too that offer chairs on the beach for Rs 10, massage for Rs 50-100, and “meals” which essentially means, well, Maggi noodles and omelettes accompanied with masala chai or tender coconut water. The more things change the more ubiquitous they get in the backpacker world. No one’s complaining, though.
Air: Closest airport is in Bhubaneshwar 57 km; Railways: Direct connections from Delhi and Kolkata; Stay: Plenty of budget accommodation in the range of Rs 500 – Rs 1,500. In the off-
season hotel rates are down by 50 per cent
Published in JetWings, July 2011