To be honest, it feels good imagining backpacking and exploring places. But when you have a regular job, at times it is quite a stressful process to make each trip a successful one! Had wanted to visit this place for some time now but thanks to our 12 days per year Casual Leave system, it had always been a ‘to be plan’.
Finally realizing that making a 7 day itinerary might only delay this trip, I decided to go for it when the holiday list showed 4 days off in a row! So here I am sharing a straight, plain and not so exotic 4 day trip to the Andaman Islands.
Flights from Kolkata to Port Blair start as early as 5.30 am (so do the ones from Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad). Two hours of flight and I was welcomed by the turquoise blue waters and the amazing cluster of islands.
Having read somewhere that while landing, the view from the left side of the plane is better, I had checked in and reserved a window seat accordingly. Sleepy as I was, an alarm on my cellphone made sure I woke up before the flight descended towards the destination. And the alarm was a wise choice indeed! The view beyond the window was one which would be etched on my mind forever.
Like all airports and stations, a fleet of cab drivers await you in Port Blair. Not wanting to waste any time, I reserved one and requested the cab-driver (Mr. Vasu) for a ride to a budget hotel near the jetty (had planned to catch a cruise to Havelock early next morning from the jetty). Vasu suggested exploring the island on a rented two-wheeler rather than spending INR 1200 on his cab (an honest man he was, and the best I can do is to keep my promise of referring his details to other tourists. Please DM me for his number).
He dropped me at a hotel which charged Rs 900 for the night. The room was a small one but clean. A number of such hotels are available for budget travellers in Port Blair. My advice would be to save the money while in Port Blair and spend it for beach resorts while in the other Islands. I kept the luggage in the room, grabbed the back pack (which had my camera, some food and water) and headed for the two-wheelers’ office which Vasu had shown on our way to the hotel. Even the day’s plan was suggested by him.
Saro Tours & Travel is a prominent and decent bike rental service provider, located around 10 mins walk from the Jetty. The owner was very considerate and agreed to collect my two-wheeler late in the night since I was to leave early morning next day. Charges start from INR 500/day and a security deposit of INR 2000. Fuel station is nearby and a litre of petrol is more than enough to cover the Island on a day.
My first destination was to be Chatam Saw Mill – argued to be Asia’s oldest and largest saw mill, established by the British in the year 1883.
Local guides are available at the mill and it is worthwhile to hire one to understand the importance of the site, to connect with the historical aspects of the place. Look out for the bomb craters, a Japanese bunker – marks of World War II. A souvenir shop and a museum are located within premises. Historical significance is what draws crowd to this place. Time to be allotted would be around 1-2 hours maximum.
Chatam Island is connected to Port Blair by a road bridge and is around 11 kms from city center. Advisable to visit in the early part of the day. Don’t forget it’s a working saw mill, and hence full of wood dust, so people with dust allergy and breathing issues are advised to take precautionary measures. The road to Chatam is an appealing one with the sea on one side and full of trees on the other.
After a glass of sugarcane juice outside the mill, I headed for Samudrika Marine Museum – run by the Indian Navy. From variety of marine life being beautifully showcased, maps detailing the underwater terrain of the Indian Ocean, samples of different types of coral, details on the tribes inhabiting the island groups, to all you would like to know about the place is available. The Hawksbill Turtle story makes for heartbreaking reading. The way our actions are causing the extinction of this beautiful life is regrettable. It is a small but well maintained museum. A blue whale skeleton is on display on the garden outside. You can find a souvenir shop as well. Please note, the museum is closed for lunch break for an hour from 1 pm onward.
Time to be allotted could be 40-45 minutes.
Walking out of the museum, decided to treat myself with some food (brunch to be exact!). Restaurants can be found few meters from the museum towards the city centre.
A bit drowsy after the heavy meal, I made a slight change in the plan and instead of visiting the Forest Museum returned to the hotel for a quick nap. It was almost 3 o’clock by the time I reached the Cellular Jail.
Only card payments were being accepted for the entry tickets (not quite sure why and there was a lot of confusion near the counter).
An eerie silence greets you as soon as you enter the gates of the Jail, more so if you are aware of the dark history of the place. If you are not, would strongly recommend you request one of the guides standing near the gate to join you. I came across a judiciously and well written article on the history and horrors of the Cellular Jail – sharing the link at the end of this blog. It would be an infamy to visit this place as a tourist without knowing what every nook and corner of this place once held.
Covering the premises would take around an hour and half. The jail initially had three spokes but now only three remain. A museum is located in the central area and one on the first floor of the tower. The gallows where prisoners were hanged is located at one corner of the site. From the terrace you get the view of the nearby islands and a part of the town of Port Blair. These include Ross Island, which served as the aristocratic residence of British officials and was also called ‘Paris of the East’. Also can be seen is the North Bay Island – the one you also see on a 20 rupee note!
Later I booked a ticket for the Sound and Light show (Son-et-Lumiere ) held in the premises (timing 6.00 pm and 7.00 pm, but keeps changing) – got it through the on the spot online booking system. After an initial issue with connecting my smart phone with their Wi Fi network (you are lucky if your own internet connection works), filled in a few pages of data (including selecting your seat number) and received a registration number. It took an agonizing 35-40 minutes for the number to be generated, which you have to provide at the counter to get your ticket. It was a bit difficult for those who didn’t have a smart phone or phone and they looked helpless and troubled. If I am not wrong, I saw a couple of agents who took advantage of this and were offering to book the tickets through their phones. A personal suggestion to the management would be to relook into this plan considering the fact every visitor might not possess a smartphone. Also, many find it difficult to operate such processes on a device, and everyone might not be comfortable enough in reading and writing in English.
It was around 4.50pm by the time I received the ticket. Still with an hour for the show to start, I decided to explore the nearby areas. It was a right decision, just few meters ahead of the Cellular Jail the road takes a sharp curve and opens up by the water side. It was a pleasant view. A concrete road ran along the water body, making a perfect ride way. Just few meters from the Cellular Jail is Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex, an aquarium and few restaurants.
I was back at the gate by 5.45 and entered only to realize that the so called seats booked online had no relevance and people sat anywhere they wanted to. Fortunately enough, saw a staff pulling out plastic chairs from a nearby store room and placing them to the right side of the gallery and hurried to grab a seat – and managed to get the first row!
Photography/Videography is prohibited during the show so none to post here.
The show started on time and then it was the light and voices of the show that beamed and echoed. It felt as if the place came alive and we were back in history. I shuddered at thought of what is must have been like to survive in this place. What stunned me was that the Banyan tree at the entrance, beneath which I sat few hours back had been there since the construction of this place – the only tree that wasn’t cut down during the jail’s construction.
The show ended an hour later. Review – have no high expectation with the technical aspect but get high on emotions the show conjures. Om Puri’s voice as the Banyan tree gives you the shivers and takes you back to the life this place housed.
The market closes by 7.30 pm. I dropped in at a South Indian restaurant named ‘Green Park’ located just opposite to the LIC office and had dosa for dinner. As assured by Saro Travel owner, they kept the outlet open only for me to return the two wheeler. Many thanks to him for the consideration.
I roamed aimlessly for some time before checking into my room. Not accustomed to sleep so early, I penned down the day’s experience (comes to your rescue when you want to blog about it months later!)
All set and packed for the next day. Coming up next in my post :
Andaman Escapade – Day 2, The Scooty and Scuba adventures at Havelock!
How to go :
1) Flights to Port Blair available from all major airports in India.
2) Cruise available from Chennai, Kolkata and Vishakhapatnam.
Where to stay :
Many options for stay starting as low as INR 500 budget hotels to Luxury stay.
Getting around Port Blair:
1) Booking a two wheeler if you are comfortable riding yourself. No traffic issues. And the water side rides are awesome (INR 500/day).
2) Can go for cabs as well (comes around INR 1000/day).
Note : Make sure to book the cruise tickets to other islands well ahead. Your hotel can also help with the same.
Know about the history of cellular jail in this article:
In case you want to know more about the trip, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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