Sunday, January 3, 2010

DIY Buddhist Pilgrimage Trip To India

I have corrected some spelling errors and new information are in blue.

Preliminaries
You should know that a DIY pilgrimage is not for the faint heart. It involves some risks and also some of unknowns. There will be no one to be your guide (except this posting and some other guide books) and you will have to arrange and negotiate your transport from place to place. It is hoped that with this guide, your pilgrimage would be much easier and memorable one. The bulk of the material was contributed by my friend Vishuddi Lee.

For cost optimization, it is best to travel in groups of four and the group should not exceed 12 otherwise, it may be difficult to book trains tickets.

The travel itinerary is based on my 9 days travel, commencing on Thursday 17 December 2009 and ending on Friday 25 December 2009. You can get further details here. The cost of this trip is under RM2K. Commercial tours will set you back between RM4K and RM6.5K per person.

Advance Booking
To do a DIY pilgrimage trip in India requires some planning. Two of the most important plans are booking of the air and train tickets. If traveling on larger groups, then it is advisable to books rooms at the monasteries as well. It is also important to take travel insurance.

AirAsia
Since we are traveling on AirAsia, it is best to book early to get the best rates. As the travel time approaches, we must then booked the train tickets. Make sure you pre-book your meals rather than on board not just for the discount but food can run out quickly and the journey takes about 4 hrs. Also, it is advisable to check in your at least one luggage for every group of four as some items cannot be carried on board. With effect from June 2010, the departure tax at the airports have been increased to INR515! Perhaps they are trying discourage people visiting India.

Indian Railway
The Indian Railways (www.irctc.co.in) allows the booking of train tickets three months in advance and you must book as early as possible as there are limited seats for the air-conditioned class. Do not travel in the sleeper, 2nd or 3rd class unless no choice. To optimise cost, it is best to travel in groups of four (five is possible if children is involved). There is no canteen or pantry on board a train. All food must be purchased at the platform. Some stations, street vendors do come up and sell but may not be clean.

It is important to note that some trains are not available everyday. The train used here are based on traveling on Thursday and ending Friday the following week.

Go to www.irctc.co.in and register a name and user id/password. Then click Plan Travel to book your tickets.

1. 17 Dec 09, Train no. 2307 Depart 23.30hrs from Howrah JN(HWH) to Gaya JN(GAYA) cost Rs747 per pax, 458m arrive at 07.15hrs. When booking select AC2 class.
2. 20 Dec 09, Train no. 2381 Depart 14.57hrs from GAYA JN(GAYA) to VARANSAI(BSB), costs Rs463 per pax, 220km arrive at 16.38hrs. When booking select AC2 class.
3. 21 Dec 09, Train no. 550 Depart SARNATH(SRNT) to GORAKHPUR JN(GKP), costs Rs291 per pax, 221km arrive 07.15hrs. When booking select First class.
4. 24 Dec 09, Train no 5052 Depart GORAKPUR(GKP) to KOLKATA(KLT), costs Rs1,176, 880km arrive 04.15hrs. When booking select AC2 class.

Note: Time table and prices are indicative and may change.

After booking, make sure you print at least two copies of the e-ticket. You use this e-ticket for boarding and checking purposing. There is a charge of Rs40 per booking/cancellation. All trains except for Train no 550 which does not provide blanket and pillow. It's rather cold in train no. 550. If you lose your e-ticket, a charge of Rs50 will be levied per person.

Hotel and Monasteries
If larger group is traveling, then booking of rooms in hotels and monasteries in advance is a must. Monasteries are the preferred place to stay during the duration of a pilgrimage.

Visa Arrangements
When applying Indian visa, do not forget to apply for multiple (or minimum double entry) entries visa. It costs RM180 per person. It is cheaper to apply for Nepalese visa in Kuala Lumpur. You can also apply on arrival visa at the Nepali border by paying US$20 for 15 days entry. You will also require a photograph.

Best Time To Travel
The best time to travel is from November to January as the weather there is cool in the daytime and a little chilly in the evenings and early mornings. Depending on the places you want to visit, the minimum is 8 days. If you follow my recommendation, then you will require 9 days. When doing the Buddhist pilgrimage, there are only four main sites to visit (Lumbini - place where Buddha was born, Bodhgaya - place Buddha attained enlightenment, Sarnath - place where Buddha delivered his first Sermon and Kusiniaga - place where Buddha passed away into parinivarna). All other places are secondary.

Food
Quite clean food are easily available and may consists of Indian, Chinese and European dishes. Normal food is not pricey. The food is quite tasty too and you can get a mix of vegetarian and non vegetarian. Some hotels like Ganpati Guest House in Varanasi where we stayed, only served vegetarian food. It is best to buy bottled water from shops and not street vendors. 2lt bottled water costs Rs23 while 1lt bottle sells for Rs12. Exchange rate used is RM7.80 = Rs100 or RM1 = Rs12.80.

Safety
It is quite safe in India. Do observe simple safety precautions like not walking alone in the dark, no late nights out and not walking on the back lane. Beware of pick pockets, however.

Things to Bring
1. 2 torch lights per group and some candles. Frequent power failures are to be expected.
2. Sanitiser for washing of hands (2 bottles per group)
3. Insect repellent (2 bottles per group)
4. Toilet tissue, each person to bring one roll
5. Warm clothing such as sweaters and shawl (and maybe foldable umbrellas) for ladies.
6. Comfortable walking shoes and socks.
7. Shampoo and toilet articles such as brush and toothpaste.
8. Converted Indian Rupees and about US$100 dollars. Budget for Rs250 (RM7.80) per day for standard meals. Budget Rs400 for hotel per night and Rs250 per night for monastery stay. Try and change small change by avoiding Rs1,000 (many fakes and many traders may not accept). Train tickets are prepaid in advance.

Suggested Itinerary
Day 1
a. Arrive at Kolkata from KLCC at about 4.30pm local time. Buy pre-paid taxi ticket just before you exit airport. This counter does not have small change, so you will be likely be charged to the next Rs100, so bring small change.
b. Taxi stand is just in front of airport exit and taxis are yellow in color.
c. Go straight to Howrah train station. The cost is Rs235 per taxi for 4 pax.
d. When arriving Howrah train station, look for the restaurant "Food Palace" on the left of the entrance. Here, have your dinner. Downstairs is for standing only. Suggested food include Thali set (consist of 2 chapatis, rice, dhal and potatoes), chowmein, fried rice and chicken rice. You can also order dosa (our tosai) but you won't find it in the menu.
e. After dinner, go to book shop and buy one train guide for the whole group. It will cost you Rs35. In case of derailment (touch wood), you will need to make alternative travel arrangement and this train guide will help you to find alternative routes. Traveling by road at night is not recommended (can be dangerous as road conditions bad).
f. Go to the First Class waiting room which is located left of Food Palace. You will need to show your train e-ticket before allowed in. Put your luggage there. You need someone to look after luggage. Not guarded.
g. For the more adventurous, you may venture out of the train station to look around but not alone.
h. Check with information counter for the platform (most likely 9) of the train based on your train number.
i. At about 11pm, someone to look if the train is already at platform. Search for the coach that you will be staying. Passenger names are displayed on the entrance. Normally AC2 class seats are towards the end of the train. Pillow and blanket are provided.
j. Train leaves at 11.30pm (timetable as at 1 November 2009).

Day 2
a. Arrive at Gaya Station at about 7am. Not possible to buy decent food here. If you had made prior arrangement, your guide will be here waiting for you. Otherwise, negotiate your own taxi to Bodhgaya (28km away). Do not pay more than Rs1,000. No necessity to hire guide actually if you are well read. Very easy to find your way round Mahabodhi Temple and other temples. Bodhgaya is infested with mosquitoes even in winter.
b. Suggested accommodation is Root Institute (a semi monastic Tibetan styled monastery). Dormitories are price Rs240 per person per day while if you prefer privacy, you can book room for two. It will costs Rs540 per person per day. You can pre-arrange at www.rootinstitute.com. Vegetarian food costs Rs80 per meal and it is assumed you want meals. You must write in a book if you do not want meals. Make sure you write no meal for the next day (day 3) as you will be out the whole day. You will stay two nights here. If you stay two or more days here, suggest that you spent one day mediating throughout the night at the Mahabodhi Temple. There is a fees of Rs100 per night. Please bring insect repellent and have you own mosquito tent ready (you can buy from shops nearby) failing which you will spent the whole night fighting the mosquitoes.
c. If no accommodation is available, you can try the Burmese Temple or other commercial hotels nearby like the Mahayana Hotel. Plenty to choose from.
d. After check in, have breakfast and then you can walk around. If you intend to stay out late, bring torch lights as there is no street lights leading back to Root Institute/hotels. It gets dark by 6pm. Restaurants and temples including Mahabodhi Temple are about 30 minutes walk. Most temples closes by 5.30pm while Mahabodhi Temple closes at 9pm.
e. Most of the time, most places you go, there will be no electricity until 7.pm. Most bigger monasteries have backup power.
f. Please keep small change for donations to temples.
g. I arranged with Raj Kumar (rajkumar6348@yahoo.com) to pick us up original to Root Institute only. Subsequently he took us to some of the other temple and also Mahabodhi Temple. We also visited Dongha hill. We ended about 1pm. The jeep fare was Rs2,000.

Day 3
a. You can arrange with Raj Kumar for today's itinerary. Alternatively you can join Root Institute’s tour if there is enough pax. Its cheaper and the abbot will also provide chanting services at Vulture’s peak. Cost is Rs1,600 per pax including breakfast. You can also ask Root Institute to get contact numbers or arrange transport for you for local tours or back to Gaya Railway Station.
b. Raj Kumar charges about Rs800 per day as a guide and he can make all the car booking for you. Charges are Rs2,500 per car/jeep.
c. We will be going to Rajgir and Nalanda today. Starts at 6am and ends about 4pm.
d. Have breakfast in Rajgir town (Green Hotel).
e. Suggest you go to Rajgir first (Raj would go to Nalanda first) as it is easier to climb in the morning. Nalanda is flat and easier to walk in the afternoon rather than climbing a hill in the afternoon.
f. Take cable car ride up to mountain. Return trip costs Rs30 per pax.
g. At the hill top, you have option of walking down and around halfway point go to Vulture's peak where Buddha's did his meditation. Otherwise, you will have to walk up from the foothill.
h. By the time you finished, take lunch at foothill or you can have lunch at Rajgir town.
i. Afternoon visit Nalanda. Bring umbrellas and water. Quite hot.
j. Walk to restaurants and have dinner. After that visit Mahabodhi Temple to see the night view.

Day 4
a. Have breakfast at Root Institute at 7am.
b. Check-out after breakfast.
You can arrange Raj Kumar to take you to visit Sujata Village in the morning at about 8am. It is also possible to walk there if you are prepared to hang around the dry river bed (which is just further up of the Mahabodhi Temple) and follow the Tibetan lamas by walking there.
c. You may want to bring pencils to give to the school children but do not give the children cash. The school beside the temple may ask for donation. Give Rs500 for the whole group. We do not know how the money will be used but we also want to some charity even though receipt is being given.
d. After that, you may want to want to pay a last visit to Mahabodhi Temple.
e. Have lunch before leaving for Gaya train station as there is little to eat there.
f. The jeep far will costs Rs1,200.
g. Raj Kuma's 3 days guide fee will costs Rs2,400.
h. Train leave at 14.57pm for Varanasi.
i. When at the train station, go to the waiting room on the first floor, entrance on the left side. Otherwise, the beggars will crowd around you.
j. I have also booked my room at Ganpati Guest House (Rs800 per night) for two persons. Make sure you also arrange for them to pick you up at Railway station. It's free if you stay two days or booked two rooms. Otherwise there may be a charge of Rs250.
k. Do not go to the hotel yourself and you will not be able to find it. Some roads leading to all the hotels are not accessible by vehicles. The last part to the hotel is by walking.
l. The hotel will provide a guide to take you there.
m. Dine at the hotel roof restaurant. Most dishes costs Rs100.
n. Arrange for transport to Sarnath next morning with hotel. Costs Rs500-600 per jeep.

Day 5
a. Wake up at 5.30am and go down to the Ganges riverside by 6am.
b. Boat ride is Rs40 per head and if you bargain or walk further away from the hotel, it can be cheaper at Rs30. Charged by the hour.
c. If you put lighted flower in the river, don't pay more than Rs10 per person to the girl.
d. You have option of going left (the temples where you can see people take bath) or right (place where they burn the bodies) during the boat ride.
e. After boat ride, go back to hotel and have your breakfast. You may also want to wonder around and have breakfast elsewhere. No recommendations.
f. Always bargain at least 60% when buying things. Do not accept any offer of massage even if the price sounds too good to be true. It's a trap.
g. Walk around, buy at the bazaar and take pictures.
h. Make sure you leave hotel latest by 10.30am for Sarnath. Journey takes about 1 hour (15km away only).
i. When arriving at Sarnath, head for the Chinese Temple. Sarnath is a small town with one main road only.
j. See the abbot (Banthe Devraj, tel 0091542-2595280) and ask for a room(s) for the whole group. This is for you to place your luggage and take a bath and maybe a rest for those who are tired. No electricity during daytime. No hot water during day time except after 7pm.
k. Don't forget to make a donation.
l. Then have your lunch at Holiday Inn Restaurant.
m. After lunch visit the Dhamek stupa complex. Entrance fee is Rs100 per person.
n. Then visit the museum opposite. Very good exhibits.
o. Find an internet cafe and check if Nepal is on strike. If Nepal is on strike and not ending on the next day, abort going to Lumbini. Consider spending the extra day in either Kushinagar or Gorakhpur.
p. At 6pm, suggest you attend service at Sri Lankan temple. Takes about 45min. The monks chant Buddha’s first sermon Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta.
q. Have dinner after that and return to temple to rest.
r. Leave for train station by 10.30pm. Walk left of the temple and straight all the way. you will need torch lights. About 15 mins walk.
s. When at station, ask the station master to confirm train time. The staff will let you know where to sit/sleep. Night train very cold as no pillow and blanket is given. If sleeping on upper deck, no railing to hold you and you may fall 5ft below and hurt yourself. Bring a cloth or string to restrain yourself from falling.
t. Train depart 11.30pm for Gorakhpur.

Day 6
a. Arrives at about 7.15am
b. Have breakfast nearby or you can have it later during the stop.
c. The jeeps to Sonauil is just along the main road outside the train station.
d. Costs Rs150 per person but sits 15 persons! Hire whole car for Rs700 and sits 7.
e. Journey takes about 2.30pm hours including a 30min stop for breakfast/toilet break after about 1 hour.
f. When arrived at Sonauli, jeep stops about 400m away from the Indian Immigration.
g. No need to take trishaw. Just walk to Indian Immigration which is just a small shop on your right. Don’t miss it and chop your passport.
h. Make sure you fill departure form before you walk across to the Nepalese side.
i. At the Nepalese immigration office, fill in form for on the spot visa issuance and pay US$20 for 15 days entry permit.
j. You can negotiate taxi to Lumbini at Rs500 or Nepalese Rs800.
l. We use a contact Prakritik (00977-9847117070) to arrange transport to take us to Lumbini (Rs500) and back tomorrow morning as well as taxi to Gorakhpur (Rs900) and then Kushiniagar (Rs900). At the local tel shop, ask them to call and charges are about Rs3 only instead of using your own hand phone. Very expensive to call in India/Nepal.
m. Go to the Tibetan monetary. They charge Nepalese Rs1,400 per night per room. Very clean and hotel like facilities except no TV. Lumbini Garden hotels charges US$80 per night. Other local hotels about Nepalese Rs500 per night but no hot water!
n. Eat at outside stall or Buddha Hotel Restaurant. Lumbini Hotel's food is very expensive.
l. Put you things down and immediately walk to Lumbini Garden complex about 15 minutes away.
m. visit as many temples as possible but don't forget Mahadevi temple. Entry costs is Rs32 or Nepalese Rs50. No changes for other temple. This temple closes at 5.30pm.
n. Next morning, can continue to come and vists other temples within the vicinity.

Day 7
a. Leave Lumbini by 9am (latest 10am).
b. Journey to Gorakhpur and Kushiniagar is long and you will arrive at about 3+pm.
c. Do not forget to ask driver to stop halfway for your lunch.
d. When arriving at Kushinagar, stay at the Japan Sri Lankan monastery.
e. Pay respects to abbot and request for blessing service if possible.
f. Walk to Mahaparinibbana temple about 15 minutes away.
g. Do not forget to make contribution for staying there. Request abbot to arrange transport tomorrow morning to go back to Gorakhpur. Cost of jeep is Rs750. On the way back stop by the Makutabandhana stupa, place where Buddha was cremated for 5 minutes.
h. Abbot will arrange simple breakfast for you.
i. Have dinner at the restaurant run by the tourist association. Prices are reasonable.

Day 8
a. Leave by 8am latest. Journey takes 1hr.
b. Train leaves for Kolkata at 10.10am.
c. When at train Gorakhpur station, buy lots of food, water and biscuits. Decent food on the train will only be available after 4pm. Try their mini puri (Rs10 per box) and curry puff like delicacies (Rs5 each).
d. Someone will come and take you food order at about 6pm and food delivered at 7pm. Dosa (tosai) is available on board from street vendors.

Day 9
a. Arrive at Kolkata station at about 7.0am (after 2 hrs delay).
b. You need to decide where you want to go in Kolkata town centre. We went to New Market at Chowringhee area for some shopping. Taxi fare is Rs250.
c. Had breakfast at Blue Sky Restaurant along Strudder Street (parallel to Lindsay Street), opposite New Market. Reasonable prices patronized by foreigners.
d. Leave for Airport by 12.30pm. Taxi fare is Rs300.
e. Do not forget to have your Airasia online booking slip or else you may not enter the airport!

Bon Voyage!

15 comments:

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  2. This is such a straight forward yet comprehensive instruction for a DIY Buddhist Pilgrimage. I finally decided to go after reading this , because I was unsure about what to do before that. I was going to put it off until the end of the year, but now I think I have enough info to go this Vesak. Thanks for the blog post. Best wishes on you upcoming journey. May the blessing of the Buddha be with you on your trip.

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    Hoteis Em Joao Pessoa

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